16th.Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) 15-31 August 2020, Warsaw, Poland
Programme and Programme Notes
We regret to announce that due to the progress of the pandemic in North America, pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Charles Richard-Hamelin have been obliged to withdraw from the 16th Chopin and His Europe Festival.
As the festival programme (link above) now has full and informative online background historical notes on the genesis of works to be performed by eminent musicologists, this aspect of my reviewing is no longer necessary.
I shall restrict myself mainly to personal assessment of performances
Profile of the Reviewer Michael Moran
The pandemic and seat distancing in the audience, all wearing masks of various hues and patterns, has created a rather melancholic although occasionally lighthearted vista of deprivation in the Filharmonia. Scarcely any excited joyful conversation and 'buzz' at the festival opening and the absence of many friends.
Psychologically life has become unaccountably self-conscious as one is unavoidably besieged by the suspicion that a nearby stranger may be infected asymptomatically. Sole eye contact remains a strange phenomenon but curiously expressive and seems to carry subliminal messages difficult to decode accurately. In Western culture, reading communicative eyes behind a mask is an unfamiliar experience, whereas in other cultures it is a custom. The lack of an interval means musical conversation and the expression of feelings concerning 'the programme so far' has disappeared. At the conclusion most simply left the hall with minimal social interaction.
The fact the festival is being mounted at all is a triumph of courage and tenacity on the part of the Chopin Institute, the loyal and indefatigable Director, Artistic Director, PR Manager and staff. They are all to be congratulated.
Many of the artists are performing before an audience for the first time since the pandemic began months ago. Needless to say some were apprehensive...but all are extraordinarily grateful to the Artistic Director of the Festival, Stanisław Leszyński, for his courage and perseverance shown in mounting this festival against the odds in the present ghastly circumstances with a 'socially distanced' audience
Photographs by Wojciech Grzędziński/NIFC
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21:00 August 31 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Yulianna Avdeeva piano
In Poland any mention of Yulianna Avdeeva is bound to generate intense and passionate discussion. As those of you who are familiar with my account of her winning the 16th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2010, you will know of my strong conviction from the very outset that she would win. My opinion of her brilliance is not shared by all in Poland - I simply cannot understand this but then again I am not a Polish melomane.
In the storm of protest that followed this decision I could not agree more with Kevin Kenner, Second Prize winner at the Warsaw Competition in 1990 (no First Prize was awarded in that year) and a jury member in 2010 - a pianist whose musical judgment concerning Chopin I have the utmost respect for. In an interview for news.pl he justified the decision in the following words:
“Avdeeva has a very deep understanding of the score, the kind of relationship to the score which no other pianist in this competition had. She looked into the score for her creative ideas. It was the source of virtually everything she did and she was also one of the most consistent competitors throughout the event,” he said.
She has developed tremendously since her competition victory. Her fine tone and refined touch seduced the ear from the moment she touched the Steinway. Avdeeva brings an intellectual seriousness and tremendous authority to her playing. With Chopin, her search for artistic and musical truth within the notated score is clear. She brings a self-consistent, fully integrated vision of the composer to us, which, irrespective of one's personal view of her Chopin interpretations, Chopin himself or the instruments at his disposal, creates an 'authentic' and deeply rewarding coherent conception of his music. My word there are certainly many Chopins! We each have our own and those of us who love his music will defend our personal opinion to the death with a passion perhaps not given to any other composer.
To be honest I could not wait to hear the development of one of the most mature, stylish and musically perceptive pianist of the competition, she who presents Chopin as a grand maître of the keyboard. After all Chopin himself, that Ariel of the keyboard, liked above most of his pupils, the 'masculine' playing of his music by the heavyweight German pianist and composer Adolf Gutmann (1819-1882), much to everyone's confusion at the time.
Fantasia for Piano in G minor Op. 77
Avdeeva first performed, as possible a prologue to the 'Eroica Variations', the rarely heard Fantasia in G minor Op. 77 (1809). Beethoven’s powers of improvisation were legendary. As Czerny recalled: 'His improvisation was most brilliant and striking. In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs; for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them. After ending an improvisation of this kind he would burst into loud laughter and mock his listeners for the emotion he had caused in them. ‘You are fools!’, he would say.'
This fantasia is a quite extraordinary cascade of glittering, virtuosic pianistic fragments one can imagine Beethoven tossing aloft and aside in an energetic improvisatory style. I once saw a piano of his in a museum, I think in Bonn, where some of the ivories on the keyboard had been worn down to the wood! An absolutely astonishing work I had never before heard until earlier this month at Duszniki Zdrój.
Avdeeva gave us in Warsaw and even more than previous glistening account of this rather bizarre, not particularly attractive, work with a spontaneous sense of improvisation, glittering tone and sparkling articulation. With full emotional commitment she 'made something of it' and created the distinct impression of Beethoven's incredibly whimsical and mercurial mind. This was offered as a prologue to the great work that followed.
15 Variations and a Fuge in E flat major on an Original Theme, Op. 35 “Eroica Variations” (1802).
One can only imagine the extraordinary impact on contemporary listeners of the opening fortissimo E-flat major chord (such a powerful identity statement of 'I compose therefore I am') followed immediately by pianissimo reveries on the Basso del Tema which organically grows into the theme proper.
The theme of the variations was also used in the Finale of Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1801), in the Contradanse, WoO 14 No. 7 for orchestra (1802) as well as of course, the Finale of the Third Symphony Op. 55, the 'Eroica' (1804) and its gestation, fraught with disillusionment. The opening gesture in the First Movement of the 'Eroica' Symphony uses a chord that is almost the same as the opening chord of the piano variations. Leonard Bernstein referred to the Eroica Symphony’s opening as 'whiplashes that shattered the elegant formality of the 18th Century.'
The pianistic technical innovations in this pianoforte work make it quite revolutionary and uniquely demanding for the pianist, perhaps the reason it is not often performed in concert despite its iconic status. On this occasion in Warsaw Avdeeva gave us an interpretation of 'heroic' masculine strength which never felt excessive, rather richer and more noble than previously. Each variation had its own style, identity, life, colour and sound with her usual tremendously authoritative command of the keyboard. The magnificent, energetic Fugue (tremendously difficult) which crowns the work was again powerfully and convincingly expressed by Avdeeva with minimal pedal. As Angela Hewitt notes of the conclusion of the piece, when the first four notes of the theme are condensed into increasingly short note values, 'One can imagine with what relish Beethoven himself would have played it!'
However for me it was the actual overwhelming nature of this music that preoccupied my mind and heart - surely all one can ask of a pianist as the conduit of the composer's musical intentions and inspiration. Of course, as is far too often the case with me, and may I add, desperately unfair, I had brain echoes of a monumental performance of the work given in 1980 in the Royal Festival Hall in London by Emil Gilels. One of my greatest musical experiences.
I am full of admiration for Yulianna Avdeeva who ignored the risks of this frightful pandemic and made the journey after a long period 'off stage' to rather remote Duszniki Zdroj and later to Warsaw, purely out of love of these two festivals and the music and associations this small spa and capital city has with Fryderyk Chopin.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky by Victor Hartmann
This piece is a portrait of a man walking around an art exhibition (the pictures painted by Mussorgsky’s friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann). The composer is reminiscing on this past friendship now suddenly and tragically cut short when the young artist died suddenly of an aneurysm. The visitor walks at a fairly regular pace but perhaps not always as his mood fluctuates between grief and elated remembrance of happy times spent together. The Russian critic Vladimir Stasov (1769-1848), to whom the work is dedicated, commented: 'In this piece Mussorgsky depicts himself "roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.'
The Russian poet Arseny
Goleníshchev-Kutúzov, who wrote the texts for Mussorgsky's two song cycles, wrote
of its reception: There was no end to the enthusiasm shown by his devotees; but many
of Mussorgsky's friends, on the other hand, and especially the comrade
composers, were seriously puzzled and, listening to the 'novelty,' shook their
heads in bewilderment. Naturally, Mussorgsky noticed their bewilderment and
seemed to feel that he 'had gone too far.' He set the illustrations aside
without even trying to publish them.
Avdeeva gave us a powerful and idiomatic interpretation of the work with great moments of virtuoso pianism. Many 'pictures' were painted in vivid and imaginative colours. However, at times I felt more expressiveness would have relieved her brilliant literal depiction of some 'pictures' or portraits. Perhaps she could have given us slightly more breathing space between the depictions which would have assisted the 'listening wanderer' to recover after such a demanding excursion through the gallery.
The suite of pictures begins at the art exhibition, but the viewer and the pictures he views dissolves at the Catacombs when the journey changes its nature. To decide on the tempo for the Promenade is always a challenge for the pianist. I personally wander far more slowly around art galleries or rove in my imagination, than some pianists. The art exhibition was of Hatmann's drawings and watercolours (not strong oil paintings) and I feel this should be considered when approaching the dynamic range of any performance in order to avoid undue, declamatory heaviness.
Suite of Movements
The tempo I felt slightly too fast for a man walking around an art gallery, even a gallery of the mind, wandering in scenes that flooded his memory
The Gnome Avdeeva presented him as jagged and unpredictable in unsettling halting, truncated rhythms
Promenade Sensitively and dynamically reduced to match the following painting
The Old Castle Avdeeva presented melancholic reminiscences of the faded glory of battles past, victorious and defeated in songs sung by a troubadour
Tuileries (Children's Quarrel after Games) Retains the innocent cruelty of such quarrels in the playground.
Cattle Avdeeva skilfully presented these 'Polish' oxen pulling a heavy wagon passing by, ponderously close and odiferous, then moving off along the unmade track into the distance
Avdeeva presented a thoughtful, dynamically graded transition
Ballet of Unhatched Chicks
Avdeeva presented a scintillating depiction of Hartmann's design for the ballet Trilby - the imagined nervous movements of canary chicks.
"Samuel" Goldenberg and "Schmuÿle"
Two Polish Jews, Rich and Poor - Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle - were depicted
Limoges. The Market (The Great News)
Mussorgsky indicating excitable argumentative provincial market life to perhaps contrast more strikingly with death in the next depiction. Avdeeva sparkled with rural invective here.
Catacombs (Roman Tomb) - With the Dead in a Dead Language
Avdeeva presented the movingly atmospheric, melancholic ambience of darkness, skulls, silence, mould and decay. I remember this after visiting them myself when living as a child in Rome many years ago
Hartmann, Vasily Kenel, and a guide holding the lantern
'Catacombae' and 'Cum mortuis in lingua mortua' from Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition'
The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)
Avdeeva painted the portrait of a truly nasty and frightening fantasy creature. Hartmann's drawing depicted a clock in the form of the ghastly Baba Yaga's hut perched on fowl's legs. Mussorgsky added the witch's flight in a mortar - possibly created following a tormented dream.
The ghastly witch Baba Yaga
The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev) or 'The Great Gate of Kiev'
Avdeeva constructed a monumental gate of power and majesty with great nobility of tone to sculpt massive deliberation at the conclusion. She sounded completely convincing in her depiction of the joyful celebratory peals of Orthodox bells and carillons. I felt this to be by far the most expressive and persuasive of her 'pictures'.
Her performance was given a standing ovation and was tumultuously received by the 'distanced' audience.
As a first encore, a refined and sensitive Chopin Nocturne in F major Op.15 No.1.
For her second, singularly appropriate in view of the date, it being the eve of the shelling of Westerplatte and the outbreak of the Second World War, a majestically performed Chopin Polonaise in A-flat major Op.53
21:00 Warsaw August 30 Philharmonic Concert Hall
Recital of Songs
Christoph Prégardien tenor
Julius Drake piano
I had heard this fine musician and subtle lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien last year at this festival elevating Moniuszko songs to the level of true art, as well as heart-rending songs by Duparc. A deeply memorable musical experience. Before that, in June 2017, at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, I heard him sing madrigals and operatic excerpts with his son Julien to commemorate the 450th birthday of Claudio Monterverdi. They were accompanied by Anima Eterna Brugge conducted by Jos van Immerseel. One can imagine I anticipated this recital of Beethoven and Schubert songs with great pleasure.
Concerts are never real music, you have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things of art.' Chopin said to one of his students (Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger). Far be it from me to contradict Chopin, but this was certainly not the case in the song recital I attended this evening.
Beethoven once commented 'I don't like writing songs' and was not prolific in this genre. I must admit to be vastly more familiar with his chamber, piano, opera and symphonic output than his songs. Many of them were quite new to me apart from being of course sung in German. However I did have a couple of favored songs, mostly about the travails of love arising from his fraught relationship with the 'immortal beloved' and other tragic losses. Such negative occurrences assailed Beethoven as deeply and bitterly as the rest of us
Beethoven was the first composer to arrange songs in cycles. These six short poems are arranged as a group to follow each other attacca. The poet believes his songs can reduce the separation between them. Recent research indicates the cycle may possibly be dedicated to the Beethoven's beloved patron Prince von Lobkowitz who was recently bereaved having lost his wife. On the other hand Beethoven may be envisaging a yearning for his own 'immortal beloved'.
They were sung radiantly, incomparably passionately with deepest yearning and incandescent emotion by Prégardien. He was accompanied on the piano by Julius Drake, arguably the most outstanding and eminent song accompanists performing in the world today.
I sadly do not have the German language, but one really must read the superb translations of these sensitive love poems of loss written by the medically selfless Austrian physician and writer Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858). Subtle and thoughtful translations by Richard Stokes, Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music and award winning translator, are available for each poem in the cycle here: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/1048
An die ferne Geliebte ('To the departed beloved')
Auf dem Hügel sitz’ ich, Op.98 No. 1
Wo die Berge so blau Op. 98 No. 2
Leichte Segler in den Höhen Op. 98 No. 3
Diese Wolken in den Höhen Op. 98 No. 4
Es kehret der Maien, es blühet die Au Op. 98 No. 5
Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder Op. 98 No. 6 (Such a deeply affecting and passionately delivered song)
With Schubert songs it is all to easy to gloss over the poetry to concentrate solely on the music. Often the poet knew the composer and there was a cross-fertilization of inspiration. His life frustrations, crises and literary appreciation attracted him to certain poets. One might be surprised to learn there are some 110 poets Schubert set to music ranging from Metastasio (1698-1782) to Heinrich Heine, even touching upon Petrarch, Shakespeare and the Greeks. there are seventy-four Goethe Lieder and forty-four Schiller Lieder. He was always looking out for new inspirational poetic material for his Lieder. Many German and Austrian poets, famous in their lifetimes and taken up by the composer, have faded into undeserved oblivion. The composition of Schubert songs depends on the availability of lyric poetry and a sublime renaissance of lyricism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Criticism today of the quality of the poetic choices Schubert made is common but critics of his period often possessed quite a different judgement. He was often praised for his choices and was proud of his own assessment of their quality. Yes, he may have begun with the sentimental Hölty, Matthisson, Salis-Servis and Kosegarten but moved 'up' to Goethe, Schiller, Wilhelm Müller, Walter Scott and Heine. The pathological poet Ernst Schultz ('obsessed with love for two women who did not return his love' and who recorded these travails in a diary) was quite familiar to Schubert. The Johann Mayrhofer poems may well have inspired harmonically advanced music wherein Schubert anticipates Wagner. Poetic images also inspired profound music. As I often mention in my reviews, a deep knowledge of literature and its cultural significance is needed to fully understand the thoughts that inspired so many nineteenth century composers.
[Much thanks from me to Susan Youens for her essay Schubert and his Poets:Issues and Conundrums]
Please read to escape for even a moment the ubiquitous golden calf and social reductionism of our age.
Schwanengesang (Swan Song) (1828)
Heinrich Friedrich Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) was a German poet and music critic. He had considerable influence and power over what music could be used for German nationalistic purposes in the mid-nineteenth century. Because he had 'an effective monopoly on music criticism' in Frankfurt and the popularity of his writings, Rellstab's approval would have been important for any musician's career in areas in which German nationalism was present.
The first seven songs of Franz Schubert's Schwanengesang have words by Heinrich Rellstab (1799-1860)
Liebesbotschaft, No. 1
Kriegers Ahnung No. 2 (D. 957 ) (Such a dark, melancholy beginning)
Frühlingssehnsucht No. 3 (D. 957 )
Ständchen No. 4 (D. 957 ) (superb without the slightest hint of kitsch in this famous song)
Aufenthalt No. 5 (D. 957 )
In der Ferne No. 6 (D. 957 ) (Powerful and deeply considered with a strong sense of rebirth)
Abschied No. 7 (D. 957 ) (gentle and blithe)
The German poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) wrote the poems for the last six songs.
Der Atlas No. 8 (D. 957 ) (Violent resistance to destiny in a magnificent, theatrical conclusion)
Ihr Bild No. 9 (D. 957 ) (a powerful, visionary, charismatic atmosphere)
Das Fischermädchen No. 10 (D 957)
Die Stadt No. 11 (D. 957 ) (so bleak a conclusion my blood froze in my veins)
Am Meer No. 12 (D. 957 ) (desperately melancholic yet passionate)
Der Doppelgänger No. 13 (D. 957 ) (Impenetrably dark and apprehensive)
For affecting translations of the songs that make up Schwanengesang click on this link:
They are translated by Richard Wigmore. He read modern languages at Cambridge and studied music at the Guildhall School of Music and the Salzburg Mozarteum.
There is nothing left to say about this sublime and moving performance of Schubert songs that raised us from this earthly coil by these two great artists. A memorable life musical experience.
I take leave to quote Shakespeare from Henry V Act IV and the St. Crispin's Day speech of the King
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here
At the conclusion of this recital, Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake thanked the audience profusely from the stage and the Artistic Director of the festival, Stanisław Leszczyński, for providing them with the opportunity to perform. Julius Drake said that since the beginning of the pandemic it was as if they had had part of their body removed, like 'a limb cut off' as he graphically expressed it.
They then movingly performed the last song Schubert ever wrote, the last song of the Schwannengesang, Die Taubenpost to words by Johann Gabriel Seidel - a surprisingly blithe and tender song. https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/1047.
The second encore was Wonne Der Wehmut (Delight in Melancholy) a song by Beethoven omitted from the beginning of the recital (the lack of an intermission owing to the pandemic restrictions prevented the singer from performing the first three programmed Beethoven songs during the official recital) https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/3172 translated by Richard Wigmore.
An enthusiastic, seemingly never-ending standing ovation for a recital of the highest in musical art that restored one's faith in the civilized values of humanity.
21:00 August 29 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Cristina Esclapez historical piano
Lorenzo Coppola clarinet
Kristin von der Goltz cello
This was a particularly fascinating concert, not least of all because of the adventurousness of the musicians involved, their instruments and the music they chose to play.
'Music lovers today do not always realise what an important element of the nineteenth-century repertoire was composed of transcriptions – adaptations of original works for different forces (sometimes produced by their composers, but more often by publishers wishing to multiply their profits and by virtuosos seeking attractive new repertoire).'
This remark by Piotr Maculewicz, of essential relevance to this concert, is taken from the excellent programme notes accompanying this unique event which I suggest you read closely https://festiwal.nifc.pl/en/2020/kalendarium
Lorenzo Coppola, the clarinettist, spoke to us directly, most engagingly and entertainingly from the stage at the beginning of the concert. He profusely thanked the National Chopin Institute for the rare offer of an opportunity to play with a live audience during the pandemic. He then invited us join him in realizing a 'musical dream' as a consolation to the ghastliness surrounding us. Clearly he is one of life's communicators. He continued to introduce each work in an informative and sometimes emotional manner, which was immensely relaxing for the audience. The programme was in a carefully designed interpretative arc from bucolic opera buffa to the most profound musical utterance.
Trio in B flat major, Op. 11
In his chat to us that delightfully opened the programme, Coppola reminded us that Beethoven played the viola as a young musician in a theatre orchestra and would have had extensive experience of music for the opera. He then demonstrated his rare comic actor ability by demonstrating the type of character certain music would illustrate in various moods. Love, jealousy, the plaintive complaining lover and piracy. In a demonstration of opera buffa he depicted an immensely successful caricature of a drunken man.
The timbre of this ensemble with the period clarinet, the Buchholtz copy by Paul McNulty of a Polish piano of the Chopin period (his family owned one) and the rich cello made for an unaccustomed group mixture of sounds. The Allegro con brio betrayed many amusing motifs with witty repetitions and a rather comic conclusion. The Adagio was soaked in faux melancholy, sadness and yearning - the risible 'love sickness' of the plaintive, complaining lover of much poetry, literature and operetta.
The Theme (con variazioni) was almost ludicrously 'jolly hockey sticks' as we say idiomatically in English. Picture of a cartoon drunken man came to mind with the unhinged clarinet and foolish instrumental dialogues. Such jokey sections precluded a faux-serious interlude which reminded me of the instruction books for pianists detailing set musical gestures to accompany the changeable moods in silent films. The variations were on the aria ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’ from Joseph Weigl’s opera L’amor marinaro, which mined the then popular subject of piracy. The simple, even trivial melody of the theme is of a type which the Viennese termed Gassenhauer (from ‘Gasse’, meaning ‘street’), so a catchy ‘hit’ that was hummed and whistled by everyone, hence the work’s nickname: Gassenhauer-Trio (Maculewicz). In my mind's eye I could see unsophisticated villagers enjoying themselves in the countryside, something Beethoven would surely have seen and heard at that early stage in his life.
Gretchen am Spinnrade D118
The affecting regrets and yet ambiguous love yearning felt by Gretchen for Dr. Faust in this instrumental version of the touching Schubert song has been movingly arranged for cello and piano. Gretchen cannot forget the physical attractions of Faust, then his kiss (the wheel stops). Then the reluctant acceptance of sorrow and the despair of loss as it slowly begins to spin again. Here Schubert melds her immediate present and her Romantic past memory in a deeply affecting dual time scale. We are inexorably drawn into Gretchen's fantasy.
The sensitive Cristina Esclapez extracted a rare tone and refined touch from the Buchholtz and the image of the spinning wheel. She is clearly intimately involved with period instruments and experienced in managing their uniquely evocative yet complex qualities. The cello played by Kristin von der Goltz was rich yet balanced in timbre, emotion and sonority with the piano.
3 Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, Op. 73
This was not an arranged but original piece by Schumann. He was most interested in the expressive capacities of the instruments rather than displaying ostentatious virtuosity. Zart und mit Ausdruck (tender and with expression) was replete with heartfelt, nostalgic memories and emotional yearning with especially fine, evocative phrasing by Coppola on the clarinet. Fine, notable balance of timbre and sonority existed between the piano and clarinet. Lebhaft, leicht (lively, light and nimble) expressed for me the embraces of love. There was rare musical understanding established between piano and clarinet here, a perfect melding of timbres and phrasing. Rasch und mit Feuer (quick and with fire) Impetuous declamations were balanced by graceful lyricism between this perfectly balanced duo.
Esclapez has such a seductive touch on the Buchholtz, never forcing the tone in any way, simply utilizing the strengths of the instrument within its limited, but deeply expressive, color and dynamic range. The composer was always experimenting with the timbre of piano sound. A piano of Schumann's period (he loved Clara's Conrad Graf of 1838 from Vienna) had many varied colours, timbre and textures within the different registers . The match with the mahogany 'woody' texture of the period clarinet formed a charming and telling romantic musical relationship.
‘Gute Nacht’ from the song cycle Winterreise, D 911
The elegiac introduction of the tender and dark story given by Coppola to this song, arranged for clarinet and piano by Carla Bärmann, was almost more suggestive than the music itself when it came. The sensitivity to the literature expressed through the medium of sound is something all instrumentalists should aspire to. The clarinet and piano expressed the deep sadness contained within the language in a manner inspiring to poetic flight.
I arrived a stranger,
a stranger I depart.
May blessed me
with many a bouquet of flowers.
The girl spoke of love,
her mother even of marriage;
now the world is so desolate,
the path concealed beneath snow.
I cannot choose the time
for my journey;
I must find my own way
in this darkness.
A shadow thrown by the moon
is my companion;
and on the white meadows
I seek the tracks of deer.
Why should I tarry longer
and be driven out?
Let stray dogs howl
before their master’s house.
Love delights in wandering –
God made it so –
from one to another.
Beloved, good night!
I will not disturb you as you dream,
it would be a shame to spoil your rest.
You shall not hear my footsteps;
softly, softly the door is closed.
As I pass I write
‘Good night’ on your gate,
so that you might see
that I thought of you.
English Translation of a poem by Wilhelm Müller © Richard Wigmore
The performance was as sensitive and full of the heartbreaking, tragic sensibility Schubert laid before us during this legendary song cycle. An extraordinary musical moment of heightened reality in life.
Andantino from the Piano Sonata in A major, (D. 959)
I could not think of a more fitting pendant to the arrangement just heard than this melancholy recognition of the unavoidable approach of the icy embrace of death. Sensitive heartbeats sound as the reaper advances irresistibly, then the inevitable knock at the door. The Buchholtz played by Esclapez was as fragile as the soul of Schubert. Yet there were explosions of anger at this fatalistic, inescapable destiny. One could feel and see the falling of tears of despair in the repeated notes. So deeply affecting was her creation, I did not want crude applause to erupt and brutally shatter the charismatic atmosphere of humanity facing destiny, the inevitable fate facing us all.
Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (arranged for clarinet, cello and piano by Lorenzo Coppola) (1829)
A sketch of the young Chopin by Eliza Radziwill 1826, probably drawn at the hunting lodge of Prince Antoni Radziwill at Antonin, Poland.
From the stage Coppola winningly engaged us again. Even François Couperin in his L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin suggested the player sit at an angle to the audience and tastefully engage them with a smile at telling moments. Coppola felt that the Trio was an 'operatic' work, indicating that the third movement Adagio. Sostenuto was possibly inspired by Bellini and the fourth Finale. Allegretto by popular 'street music'.
The eminent Polish pedagogue Mieczysław Tomaszewski writes of this substantial work: 'For Chopin, the Trio in G minor turned into a task, a challenge and an adventure all in one.' In this early chamber piece of Chopin written when he was 18, the opening Allegro con fuoco with the unusual timbre of the clarinet, Buchholtz period piano and cello made for a novel and sensually attractive combination. I immediately found the arrangement the substitution of clarinet for the original violin most effective and in keeping with the less stringent instrumental musical philosophy of the day. A different soundscape seemed to open where the influence of Beethoven on the composition of this movement was made clear. One can hear the influence of Schubert and even Hummel in the work. There were many dramatic silences and revealing phrases. I found that the different timbre aroused unaccustomed emotions - not superior but different - perhaps less emotionally tense than the original with violin.
The Scherzo.Vivace had moving cello counterpoint that blended seamlessly with the ensemble sound to create an atmosphere of great charm. One recalls Chopin wrote it at the Antonin hunting lodge for the fine aristocratic cellist and composer Prince Antoni Radziwiłł and his daughters. Chopin dedicated it Radziwiłł but it was written as a study piece for his teacher Józef Elsner. The clarinet added a rather dreamy, less serious , almost salon feeling to the instrumental dialogues of this movement. They captured the feeling of a country dance with a little humour. The Adagio. Sostenuto lyric song, as Coppola mentioned, possibly influenced by Bellini, sounded extremely beautiful on the clarinet, close to the human voice. A quite different feeling to the tessitura of a violin. In a way I missed the soulful yearning of the violin in this movement. The clarinet was a different experience. The ultra pianissimo conclusion I found haunting and hypnotic.
The rondo Finale. Allegretto was like a fresh spring breeze that blew away the clouds of melancholic introspection. There were references to the exuberant krakowiak dance in the jolly instrumental dialogues. In the meantime, we have been served a number of episodes, the most characteristic of which resembles a Ukrainian Cossack dance. The cello remained rich and passionate, the piano refined, effortlessly binding the ensemble together. The clarinet gave the rustic theme a true village character which was so engaging and pleasurable.
Tomaszewski further observes : 'The only problem is that the Trio was written in a style that is rather un-Chopin. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say: a style that is different to what we tend to associate with Chopin.' Even Schumann, always a enthusiast for the compositions of Chopin, rhetorically commented of this great piece of Polish chamber music: ‘Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?’
This was a highly successful and civilized concert which illuminatingly taught us how flexible instrumentation can be applied to works that are not in the least inviolable but indeed benefit from such variety. A remarkable concert of great sensitivity which brought unaccustomed sonorities to familiar works.
As an encore, a deeply expressive and moving arrangement of the Chopin Prelude in E minor Op.28 No.4 whose sheer beauty, poetry and unexpected simplicity brought the audience to the verge of tears.
21:00 August 28 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Gabriela Montero piano
Sarcasms, Op. 17 (1914)
This extraordinary polytonal essay in the grotesque was brought off with great authority by Montero. Prokofiev composed Sarcasms between 1912 and 1914. He rejoiced in the controversy provoked by such extravagant compositions and performances, and the subversive ironical element contained within this musical criticism of the Russian government. In so many ways Prokofiev was a romantic composer. The ominous threats contained and were successfully revealed by Montero.
Why one would wish to begin a recital with Tempestoso at a fortissimo dynamic, however commandingly played, rather defeated me. The second Allegro rubato is rather unusual, almost aleatoric music. Her fantastic keyboard performance of the Allegro precipitato reminded me of the final tumultuous movement of the 7th Sonata. The meaning of the next title Smanioso in Italian was unknown to me but now I realize it was 'restless' or 'agitated'. I felt Montero rather unyielding in this work. The final Sarcasm is marked Precipitosissimo. In 1941 Prokofiev reflected on the fifth Sarcasm: ‘Sometimes we laugh maliciously at someone or something, but when we look closer, we see how pathetic and unfortunate is the object of our laughter. Then we become uncomfortable and the laughter rings in our ears, laughing now at us.’ Of this, the Russian virtuoso Konstantin Igumnov observed: ‘This is the image of a reveller. He has been up to mischief, has broken plates and dishes, and has been kicked downstairs; he lies there and finally begins to come to his senses; but he is still unable to tell his right foot from his left.’
Carnaval Scènes mignonnes sur quatre notes Op. 9
We then turned to Schumann's Carnaval Op.
9 (1833-35). It consists of 21 short pieces representing masked pleasure
seekers at Carnival, the festival before Lent. Schumann paints musical
portraits of himself and his friends as well as characters from the commedia
dell'arte. At this high level of keyboard proficiency and pianistic art,
it was of course technically a very fine performance. However I felt, despite many movements full of
moving poetry and sincerity, Montero tended to rush the work at times so that
it failed to express sufficiently strongly the contrasts of the puzzling,
violent, idiosyncratic, tender and capricious side of Schumann. The fast tempi she
adopted in contrast to the beautiful, more reflective passages she played, the breathlessness of her
phrasing, became problematical for me. Overall I did not feel she gave it the
great creative ‘literary’ characterization it requires. Much of the
polyphonic internal detail and colour tended to be absorbed. Although emotionally rhapsodic
at times, the highly strung tempo made the work somewhat inaccessible to the
listener. The waltz rhythms were attractive and beguiling but more breathed
expression would have been so welcome. These aspects are reflected in the
mercurial moodiness of the marvellous self-portraits (the divided personality
of the Schumann the man in Florestan and Eusebius)
and the colourful array of characters. A quotation from Macbeth is apposite:
The pianist requires an almost incandescent imagination to do justice to the genius of this composer. In Carnaval the secrets of the Sphinxes are intelligible and expressed by only 'the happy few' among pianists.
Her immense international reputation is unsurpassed in the art of creative classical improvisation. All the great keyboard composers from the Virginalists - harpsichord composers such as Froberger, the Couperins, Scarlatti to Handel and Bach - composers for the piano such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann - were all natural improvisers and performed largely their own music. The idea of devoting your life to mastering an instrument and performing music written for it by others is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of music.
She spoke to the audience rather intimately about the pandemic and how happy she was to be performing at last! This was her first public recital since March (perhaps explaining her nervous approach to Schumann). She told us she would play two contrasting improvisations. The first would be her intimate thoughts and personal reaction to the pandemic at home in Venezuela. The second as a musical consolation to the pandemic. Both were low key and affectingly simple in their attractiveness.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 36
Rachmaninoff wrote to his friend Nikita Morozov on 8 May 1907:
‘The Sonata is without any doubt wild and endlessly long. I think about 45 minutes. I was drawn into such dimensions by a programme or rather by some leading idea. It is three contrasting characters from a work of world literature. Of course, no programme will be given to the public, although I am beginning to think that if I were to reveal the programme, the Sonata would become much more comprehensible. No one will ever play this composition because of its difficulty and length but also, and maybe more importantly, because of its dubious musical merit. At some point I thought to re-work this Sonata into a symphony, but that proved to be impossible due to the purely pianistic nature of writing’.
It is said that Rachmaninoff withdrew this reference to literature and certainly the music contains other associations.
The ‘literature’ he referred to is Goethe’s Faust (possibly with elements of Lord Byron’s Manfred) and there is convincing evidence to believe that this plan to write a sonata around Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles was never entirely abandoned. Of course there are other musical elements present as it is not programme music. The pianist Konstantin Igumnov, who gave its premiere performance in Moscow, Leipzig and Berlin, visited Rachmaninoff in November 1908. After the Leipzig recital, the composer told him that ‘when composing it, he had in mind Goethe’s 'Faust' and that the 1st movement related to Faust, the 2nd one to Gretchen and the 3rd was the flight to the Brocken and Mephistopheles.’
Faust admits in the opening monologue of the play:
In me there are two souls, alas, and their
Division tears my life in two.
One loves the world, it clutches her, it binds
Itself to her, clinging with furious lust;
The other longs to soar beyond the dust
Into the realm of high ancestral minds.
A man whose soul is rent between the hedonistic pleasures of the earth and spiritual aspirations –Sacrum et Profanum. Exploring this ‘human all too human’ dichotomy, Rachmaninoff builds almost unbearable tension in this sonata.
In the Allegro moderato Faust wrestles with his soul and its temptations. I felt that Montero in her majestic opening, did penetrate the emotional vortex of the movement, this bout of metaphysical struggle to some extent. She took time to breathe, gave the movement an air of improvisation, There was musical speech and sense here. Her dynamic variation allowed colours to emerge and her tone to be rounded and attractive. Her technique dominated the movement pianistically but there is a profoundly serious internal emotional and spiritual battle played out here which must be explored.
The Lento second movement could well be interpreted as a lyrical poem expressing the love of Gretchen for Faust. I thought Montero spoke poetically and eloquently in this movement with both lyricism and surges of passionate, sensual emotion. The cantabile was beautifully suspended above other voices, communicating a feeling of authentic lyrical improvisation. The shadows of the ungoverned temptations of sensuality or the tension of repressed passion haunted this love song.
The wildness of the immense final movement Allegro molto possesses references to the terrifying Dies Irae and death. One can well associate this massive declamation to Mephistopheles and his insidious and destructive evil. Again Montero was tempted to rush and employ excessive dynamic contrasts which prevented us from exploring the darker significance of Walpurgis Night. Her technical dominance of this fiendish movement swept much before it but one must never neglect the deeper feelings and anguish of damnation Rachmaninoff was expressing here. A fine triumphal close.
As is her usual practice, she requested sung themes of local character from the audience on which to improvise.
The first was a Polish folk song entitled Ty pójdziesz górą (You Travel Higher) sung by a gentleman in the audience from the stalls.
There are a number of versions of this song but both deal with the impossibility of love between two people owing to circumstances beyond their control. Her fertile musical imagination and rare ability to realize this on the keyboard in a classical idiom never ceases to astonish and move me.
You will go up, you will go up
And I'm in the valley
You will bloom with a rose, you will bloom with a rose,
And I am a viburnum.
You will go along the road , you will go along the road the way
And I will go through forests,
You wash with water, you wash with water,
And I in tears.
You will be a lady , you will be a lady
At the great court,
I will be a priest, I will be a priest
In a white monastery.
And when we die, when we die,
We order ourselves
Golden letters, golden letters
Carved on the grave.
Those who will be going past there
United love, united love
lies in this tomb.
The second theme was sung by a lady from the balcony.
It was a song by the Polish national composer Stanisław Moniuszko entitled Wieczorna pieśń (Evening Song). It concerns an unhappy young lady tired of working in the fields all day, spoiling her hands and complexion and clearly yearning for a more colourful life.
Montero clearly loved this theme and improvised on it magically for a surprisingly extended period - possibly ten minutes - in various styles (including jazz).
Over the night dew
flow resonant voice
let your echo spread
where is our hut,
where is the old mother
bustling around supper.
Tomorrow is a public holiday,
the cornfield is not harvested
let it mature by tomorrow,
let the wind playful,
let the grasshopper,
let the lark sing here.
It's close, close
a weary heart is merry;
my mother will ask me:
"How much have you reaped in the field?"
Mother, I am young,
I feel sorry for my hands,
I don’t want to burn my face!
the work did not go well
the rain was in the way
and my maiden dumka!
A most enjoyable concert by a pianist who is popular in Poland and in command of rare natural gifts that many young pianists should aspire to - namely the uncommon ability to creatively improvise.
17:00 August 28 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Dmitri Alexeev piano
This great pianist and pedagogue scarcely needs any introduction to audiences - his musical maturity and eminence is renowned and celebrated throughout the world.
Novelette in F major, Op. 21 No. 1
Schumann intended the eight pieces of his Noveletten, Op. 21 (1838) to be performed as a group, though they are often successfully performed separately. These "tales of adventure," as the composer referred to them, provide a completely representative example of the composer's keyboard style. No. 1 in F major alternates a staccato March with a flowing legato passage within its five sections. Alexeev opened with huge tone and great emotional commitment. His cantabile of the melody was full, rounded and singing. However, he enlarged this work to almost 'heroic' dimensions which am not sure is justified.
Kreisleriana Op. 16
He then embarked on one of my favourite works of romantic piano literature Kreisleriana Op. 16 also by Schumann. To precede this work by the Novelette showed interesting musical planning foresight.
insanity was a notion that throughout the composer's time on earth, simultaneously attracted and repelled Schumann. At the end of his life he was
cruelly to fall victim to it. Kriesleriana was presented
publicly as eight sketches of the fictional character Kapellmeister Kreisler, a
rather crazy conductor-composer who was a literary figure created by the
marvellous German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffman. The piece is actually based
on the Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier and also the form of an
inventive grotesque satirical novel Hoffmann wrote with the remarkable, translated
title: Growler the Cat’s Philosophy of Life Together with Fragments of
the Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler from Random Sheets of the
The fictional author of this novel Kater Murr (Growler the Cat) is actually a caricature of the German petit bourgeois class. In a theme rather appropriate in our times of gross financial inequalities, Growler advises the reader how to become a ‘fat cat’. This advice is interrupted by fragments of Kreisler’s impassioned biography. The bizarre explanation for this is that Growler tore up a copy of Kreisler’s biography to use as rough note paper. When he sent the manuscript of his own book to the printers, the two got inexplicably mixed up when the book was published. Such devices remind one of Laurence Sterne in that great experimental novel Tristram Shandy.
Schumann was particularly fond of Kreisleriana. He was attracted to composing a works in ‘fragmented’ form in the structural manner of this novel. The use of the device of interrelated ‘fragments’ (as the nineteenth century termed what we might refer to as 'miniatures') was employed by the Romantic Movement in poetry, prose and music. Kreisler is a type of Doppelgänger for Schumann. This was a favourite concept for the composer, who divided his own creative personality between the created characters of Florestan and Eusebius. With the unpredictable Kreisler as his alter ego, Schumann was able to indulge the dualities of his own personality. The music swings violently and suddenly between agitation (Florestan) and lyrical calm (Eusebius), between dread and elation. The episodes in the piece describe Schumann's emotional passions, his divided personality and his creative art. His tortured soul alternates with lyrical love passages expressing the composer’s love for Clara Wieck. He used and transformed one of her musical themes in the work.
1838 was a disturbed time for Schumann. His marriage to this 'inaccessible love', the piano virtuoso Clara Wieck, was a year ahead. At this time they were painfully petitioning the courts for permission to marry and ignore her father's cruel social class objections to the connection. They had known each other for ten years before their eventual marriage in 1840. During this turbulent period of frustration, Schumann’s compositions evolved in complexity. Their unbridled emotionalism and adventurous structure confused musicians, audience and critics alike.
He originally intended to dedicate the work to Clara, but wishing to avoid more calamitous situations with her father, eventually dedicated it to his friend Fryderyk Chopin. The polyphonic nature of the piece may have reflected a deep understanding of Chopin's own style. The Polish composer merely commented on the cover design of the score left on his piano. Even Clara, on first acquaintance with the work, wrote: 'Sometimes your music actually frightens me, and I wonder: is it really true that the creator of such things is going to be my husband?' Even Franz Liszt was challenged finding the work 'too difficult for the public to digest.'
This great masterpiece of emotional and structural complexity, expresses much of the quixotic mercurial temperament of Schumann's personality and the literary elements of the story. The French literary theorist and Schumann-lover Roland Barthes interestingly observed that Schumann composed music in discrete, intense 'images' rather than as an evolving musical 'language', like a succession of frames in a film. The composer was experimenting with the timbre of piano sound. Without wishing to appear a 'crank', I feel it necessary to say that on a piano of Schumann's period (he loved Clara's Conrad Graf of 1838 from Vienna) the varied colours, timbre and textures of the different registers suited the contrapuntal nature of composition. This would have been rather more obvious on the older instrument than on the modern homogenized Steinway.
Alexeev cultivated a poetic and singing cantabile of great sensitivity, alluring colour, restrained tone and lyricism. His articulation in some passages was superb. The richness of his tone was seductive, never harsh but the sheer immensity and impulsive, even excessive contrast could hardly have been envisaged by Schumann on his instrument. Alexeev often adopted too fast a tempo (for me), often with pedal, which clouded the different voices. This meant he skated over much internal, expressive polyphonic detail. The transitions between sections, even within them, were often difficult to follow at such rapid tempi for this listener. The rhythmic jolts, accompanied by almost symphonic dynamic inflation, were rather disconcerting. Yet beautiful poetry was often present.
Alexeev was prone to being completely taken over by his emotional involvement in the work, glossing over other considerations, this even despite one passage marked Mit aller Kraft - with all your strength! This was clearly a grand performance by a grand maître of the instrument, but I think period sound is worthy of consideration when examining the contrasting timbres and overall comparative dynamic range of Schumann's writing for his instrument. My reaction is always coloured by Vladimir Horowitz who I consider unsurpassed in his later interpretations of this work.
Rondo in C minor Op. 1
Alexeev adopted a rather different approach to the customary performance style this Chopin Rondo in C minor Op. 1 (1825) is interpreted. He played it much as a charming and highly expressive salon piece with variations in tempo and rubato rather than as a glittering style brillant virtuoso work from Chopin's youth. Some may find this approach unacceptable. Of course we are now so distant from the source of this music one can only speculate how Chopin himself would have approached the performance and one might ask, is the question so relevant?
Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60
View of the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (1780) Francesco Lazzaro Guardi
I am afraid I
did not warm to this performance of the Barcarolle in F sharp major Op.
60 (1845–46), this charming gondolier's folk song, sung to the swish of oars
on the historic Venetian Lagoon or a romantic canal, often concerning the
travails of love. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with one fortissimo and another for the final chords. There are only subtle
degrees of heightened emotion throughout. The opening tonal mood octave Alexeev set well but slightly too strenuously. Just setting off after all. Poetically his view of the work seemed more dry than romantic and
authentically heartfelt. Disturbing yet civilized degrees
of heightened passion do occur during this outing on the
lagoon. Towards the conclusion I felt he tended to overdo
the ecstasy as do so many pianists. I will never believe this is an
explosive virtuoso work and it is almost invariably presented as such.
It was often observed that Chopin played with a much lower relative dynamic than were are used to today i.e. forte for him was perhaps mezzo-forte for us or even softer. This, together with and as a result of the limitations of the instruments of the day, means the dynamic scale of the work is not gigantic. Pianissimo on a Pleyel is the barest perceptible whisper. Berlioz once described Chopin's own playing
'....the utmost degree of softness, piano to the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings, so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one's ear to it as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.' (Quoted in Rink, Sampson ,Chopin Studies 2 p.51).
Are we simply to ignore these contemporary descriptions convinced that 'we moderns must know better'? Of course I would never suggest imitating this type of thing in a large modern concert hall but I feel these are important considerations in terms of dynamic scale when considering this great masterpiece.
The Young Alexander Scriabin
5 Preludes, Op. 16
Alexeev then turned to Scriabin Alexander Scriabin – 5 Preludes Op. 16 (1895). The influence of Liszt and Chopin is clear in these early works, until perhaps 1900, when his musical voice emerges and embraces the world of mysticism and more radical compositions.
- No. 1 in B major
- No. 2 in G sharp minor
- No. 3 in G flat major
- No. 4 in E flat minor
- No. 5 in F sharp major
The first of the five preludes is marked Andante and presents us with a lyrical post-Romantic theme. I was reminded of Rachmaninoff. The second prelude, marked Allegro, begins with a broken motif which became immensely passionate with Alexeev. The third, marked Andante cantabile, I felt lacked rather in love and expression. Alexeev transformed the mood of the fourth, marked Lento, into a rather moving piece. The fifth Allegretto prelude, dispels the solemnity, bringing the set to a close with a fleeting brightness.
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 38
Hard for me to say, but I was not as seduced by the glorious Valse Op. 38 (1903) as I had hoped to be. I have always seen this tender and ravishing work of haunted yet delicate sensibility, a type of dream waltz whose harmonies absorb into the night with perhaps, as time passes, agitated intimations or premonitions of the coming Great War that would destroy this languishing, civilized world. Alexeev gave my lyrical dream rather more turbulent flavour but in gestures of total emotional commitment. Sofronitsky offers a superb interpretation of this work, a view of great sensibility.
Deux poèmes, Op 69 (1913)
Alexeev allowed the harmonies of the Deux poèmes, Op 69 (1913) to create dreamy, whimsical, and capricious moods. The second Allegretto, whose ‘wild arabesques’ were so described by a Times critic when Scriabin played it in London the following year in 1914. The work recalls the mocking tone of Étrangeté Op.63.
No. 1 Allegretto
No. 2 Allegretto
Vers la flamme Op. 72 (1914)
Now we approach a work that has fascinated me nearly all my life. One can apply the associations created by that incandescent and fiery simple melody, wrought in small steps within the work, to any growing, personal psychic torment. The claws of destiny appear to be incontrovertibly dragging one to destruction. Vers la flamme Op. 72 (1914) was written on the verge of war, accurately predicting the conflagration that was to come, a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. According to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the piece was inspired by Scriabin's prescient conviction that a constant accumulation of heat would ultimately cause the destruction of the earth (an early vision of 'global warming'?). The title reflects the fiery destruction of the planet through a constant and irresistible, scarcely bearable, emotional crescendo that leads, like a moth fascinated to destruction, 'toward the flame'.
Alexeev gave us a highly emotional account of many extra-musical associations. However, I missed the metaphysical dimension of the work. The tremendously physical virtuosic pianism tended to cloud that atmosphere of desperate attraction, that sometimes unavoidable catastrophe that psychically possesses in human life, that irresistible magnetic attraction towards consciously inescapable, disaster. His crescendo could have been more of a disciplined arc leading to the final ecstatic conflagration. If the crescendo begins too early in the arc there is nowhere to go once a climax is reached. The irresistible sense of being gradually drawn like a moth into the murderous flame is lost or at least reduced. For me the work is deeply metaphysical and psychic and requires little external help to convey its sobering existential message.
As encores the Scriabin Mazurka in E Minor Op.20. This was followed by the rousing, highly melodic and rhythmic Liszt transcription of two Polish songs by Chopin, the Ring and the fully inebriated Drinking Song
21:00 August 27 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Szymon Nehring piano
Ryszard Groblewski viola
Marcin Zdunik cello
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello Op. 65 (1846-7)
This was a fine performance of a favourite chamber work of mine, dedicated to the great French composer and cellist, friend of Chopin, Auguste Franchomme. Chopin worked terribly exhaustingly and indecisively on the G minor Sonata during the autumn of 1846 at Nohant. It forms a part of his so-called 'late style' of post-Romanticism.
The Allegro moderato had a noble maestoso beginning quite ardent in setting the mood. A good instrumental balance was immediately obvious, not so easy when a modern Steinway is conjoined with the rich timbre of a 150 year old cello. At times I felt their dialogue could have been more intimate in the counterpoint, but the phrases were broad and emotionally embracing with carefully controlled tensions and relaxations within the emotive moods. The cello of that excellent musician Marcin Zdunik was so thoughtful and yearning in the suggestive harmonic transitions Chopin offers us. Szymon Nehring showed sensitive and subtle variation in tone and nuance.
The Scherzo could perhaps have been lighter but the cello cantabile was most expressive yet not over-sentimentalized. The Largo is such an ardent love song. Yes, I too was reminded of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I felt they could have indulged their overtly romantic, nostalgic, sentimental side a little more in imagination, but was moved by the divine melody as I always have been. The remarkable rondo Finale. Allegro was full of the joy of dance and it was clear Nehring enjoyed himself immensely in this energetic tarantella movement - as did we all! An expressive performance with a coda that was perfectly judged both in mood and musically.
Grand Duo Concertant in E major on themes from Meyerbeer’s opera ‘Robert le diable’ Dbop. 16A (1832-33)
The co-operation of the great French cellist and composer Auguste Franchomme with his friend Chopin, produced a highly entertaining, style brillant Parisian confection, that makes no excessive demands on the ear or 'dark night of the soul'. Three themes are taken from the music of Robert le diable, presented, then paraphrased.This is a tuneful and effective collaboration that pleasurably arouses all the memories of this rarely staged opera. The challenging cello part with its carefree piano 'friendship' was a delight from beginning to end. Joy at the conclusion as the sparks flew in a triumph of happiness. The Grand Duo Concertant was dedicated to a sixteen-year-old young lady, Miss Adèle Forest. She was the daughter of an amateur cellist friend of Franchomme’s and a pupil of Chopin.
Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (first performance in version with viola) (1829)
The eminent Polish pedagogue Tomaszewski writes of this substantial work: 'For Chopin, the Trio in G minor turned into a task, a challenge and an adventure all in one.' In this early chamber piece of Chopin, the opening Allegro con fuoco with the rich mahogany timbre of the unaccustomed combination of viola and cello was luxuriously and sensually attractive. The influence of Beethoven on the composition of this movement was made clear. I felt the pastel chalk Schubertian atmosphere which develops was more pronounced with the viola substituting for the violin. A good balance was maintained between the instruments which is not always so easy to facilitate. Perhaps the phrasing could have been rather more expressive, but it such a delightful work bringing the big guns of intellectual criticism to bear on it is simply not appropriate. Simply enjoy the lightweight dancing of the bubbly Scherzo - Vivace although more personal interaction between the players would have been welcome in this dance influenced movement. The Adagio. Sostenuto has such an affecting unsentimental melody and a beautiful cantabile was brought to the performance. It speaks so representatively of the charming, sensitive refinement and sensibility of the composer but also that historical age in Warsaw.
Panorama of Warsaw from Praga Bernado Belotto (1721-1780) known erroneously as his cousin 'Canaletto'
The rondo Finale. Allegretto opens with affecting innocence and later is filled with exuberant krakowiak rhythms. Tomaszewski further observes: 'The only problem is that the Trio was written in a style that is rather un-Chopin. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say: a style that is different to what we tend to associate with Chopin.' Even Schumann, always a enthusiast for the compositions of Chopin, rhetorically commented of this great piece of Polish chamber music: ‘Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?’
A pleasant, charming evening of undemanding but mood elevating music, alluringly performed, so welcome in a time of frightful social depression and reversal beyond human control.
21:00 August 26 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Ingolf Wunder piano
During the 10th Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition I wrote the following about the highly popular and engaging pianist Ingolf Wunder:
I had been waiting for this Waltz for five years and it did not disappoint - the A flat major op. 34 No.1. A great 'summons to the dance floor' and tremendous élan in the salon with much boundless joy and contrasts of piano and forte. I kept thinking of my night at the Opernball in Vienna many years ago. No doubt Chopin was calling up his own remembrances of distant balls.
Wunder elevated this waltz into a major musical work of grand conception. Wonderful Wunder! Of course being Austrian, it would be rather difficult as a musician to avoid a life involving much dancing. I felt it was in his blood and he truly understood the Mazurkas Op.24. Playing with great joy, dancing with his body,thoughtful rubato and nostalgic cantabile. Of course he is studying under the inspiration of that great Chopin pianist Adam Harasiewicz which must help but he remains his own man. The Andante spianato was beautifully considered and 'sung' in a particularly emotional rendition with superb tone. A fine opening fanfare to the Grand Polonaise which I felt he could see assembling on the dance floor in his mind's eye. Enlivening dynamic contrasts with a very stylish delivery alongside great verve and panache. Definitely Stage III and beyond.
I am afraid on this occasion, ten years on, I was not so pleasantly surprised. The works chosen for this programme should have made me aware of the declamatory direction it was going to take.
Piano Sonata in F minor (‘Appassionata’) Op. 57
This was a performance of virtuoso tempi with dynamic contrasts that indicated an 'heroic' conception of the work. Yes, Beethoven was fond of sudden dynamic contrasts, but many were rather too excessive to my mind. He also did not like the misleading nickname 'Appassionata' given the work by the publisher. I felt the tragic nature of this work, evident in the very opening pages, was strangely absent. The fatalistic silences within the opening phrases could have been more eloquent. The emotional turbulence in the Beethoven autograph must be seen by pianists, but not exaggerated with harsh forte and dynamic inflation. I felt Wunder perhaps took the title rather too literally concerning sensual human passions. I did not feel sufficient philosophical exploration and refection on the nature of tragic human destiny that so obsessed this composer. Dynamic inflation and acceleration of tempi does not necessarily indicate despair.
What was Wunder trying to tell us concerning this work? The chorale-like theme of the Andante con moto was a pleasant contrast but could have been more expressive and sensitively approached. The tempo of the final movement Allegro ma non troppo was only partly observed - Beethoven was actually very insistent on this tempo indication. Wunder's tone and touch, taken over by passion, was at times verged on the brutal, particularly in the left hand. Owing to the tempo of the movement that he adopted, the Presto coda was forced to become a blur of sound with little or no articulation.
Overall and despite the virtuoso and extrovert panache with which the work was performed, I felt it not to be particularly Beethovenian, in the classical style or possessed sufficient serious meaning. An atmospheric, theatrical and superficially exciting interpretation certainly but not a profound one. I have never considered it to be a display piece but the enthusiasm of the audience clearly indicated that this is an approach fitting the 2020 gestalt.
Nocturne in E flat major Op. 55 No. 2
Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2
I was hoping for more sensitivity, grace, finesse and refinement in these Chopin Nocturnes, knowing his past competition performances in 2005 and 2010, but it was not to be for me. Some moments of subtle and loving cantabile tone and poetry suffused the E-flat major Op.9 No.2.
Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53
A particularly unfortunate rendition of this majestic and dignified work, reduced rather to a virtuoso display piece than a magisterial expression of the complex Polish emotion of żal and a valiant but maestoso resistance to oppression. The many solecisms complicated the effect. Similar reflections to those above followed on the wildly enthusiastic audience response. Who am I to argue?
Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514 (Der Tanz in Der Dorfschenke – The Dance in the Village Inn).
Liszt was obsessed
by Faust and he chose the account of the story by Nikolaus Lenau to set this
piece of programme music. This passage from Lenau appears in the actual score:
There is a wedding feast in progress in the village inn, with music, dancing, and drunken carousing. Mephistopheles and Faust wander by, and Mephistopheles persuades Faust to enter and join in the festivities. Mephistopheles grabs the violin from the hands of a sleepy violinist and draws from the instrument seductive and erotically intoxicating strains. The amorous Faust whirls about with a sensual village beauty [the landlord's daughter] in a wild dance; they waltz in mad abandon out of the room, into the open, away into the woods. The sounds of the violin grow softer and softer, and the nightingale sings his love-soaked song.
Wunder gave us a commanding, rather over-excited, perhaps forgivable, sensationalist keyboard account of this work. There were many solecisms. The passionate, insidiousness of the creepy seductive Mephistopheles, his misleading, 'loving' erotic gestures, the expressive literary theatre Liszt attempted to create in music, was submerged by dynamic and tempo exaggeration. What was Wunder trying to tell us about the characters of Mephistopheles, Faust and Gretchen?
Liszt was deeply concerned with literature as were many nineteenth century composers. The influence of Lord Byron on the Romantic sensibility of Europe, his scandalous life and magnificent narrative poetry cannot be underestimated. Liszt tempts pianists fearfully to extremes through his formidably crowd-gathering, impressive keyboard pyrotechnics. He is greatly in need of rehabilitation from a rather limited, virtuosic view of his complex, referential artistic, religious and musical mind and musical imagination.
Piano Sonata in B minor S. 178
The manner in which a pianist opens this masterpiece tells you everything about the conception that will evolve. The haunted repeated notes produced were of the right duration (a terrible battle lies in wait for pianists here - Krystian Zimerman drove his recording engineers mad repeating it hundreds of times before being satisfied). Just to have this vast work in your fingers is a massive achievement but what you do with this is another matter altogether, what you have to say about this work.
This famous Sonata was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854 and first performed on January 27, 1857 in Berlin by Hans von Bülow. It was attacked by the German Bohemian music critic Eduard Hanslick who said rather colourfully ‘anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help’. Among the many divergent theories of the meaning of this masterpiece we find that:
- The Sonata is a musical portrait of the Faust legend, with “Faust,” “Gretchen,” and “Mephistopheles” themes symbolizing the main characters. (Ott, 1981; Whitelaw, 2017)
- The Sonata is autobiographical; its musical contrasts spring from the conflicts within Liszt’s own personality. (Raabe, 1931)
- The Sonata is about the divine and the diabolical; it is based on the Bible and on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Szász, 1984)
- The Sonata is an allegory set in the Garden of Eden; it deals with the Fall of Man and contains “God,” “Lucifer,” “Serpent,” “Adam,” and “Eve” themes. (Merrick, 1987)
- The Sonata has no programmatic allusions; it is a piece of “expressive form” with no meaning beyond itself. (Winklhofer, 1980)
This is a profound piece, too often played as some type of hectic piano fantasy or dream fantasy when it is actually in many respects a philosophical dialogue between different fundamental aspects of the human spirit as possibly symbolized by Faust, Mephistopheles and Gretchen. Liszt was tremendously influenced by literature and poetry in his compositions and in particular Goethe’s Faust, the dramatic spiritual battle between Faust and Mephistopheles with Gretchen hovering about as a seductive, lyrical feminine interlude. And it is a far more complex musical and structural argument than that this rather trite account of mine would indicate. Wunder did not always communicate these complex possibilities.
Eugène Delacroix - a rare illustration to Goethe's Faust
In many ways this sonata is an opera of life and in fact has a rather semi-programmatic narrative, not unlike Liszt's own life or a Byronic poem. Remember the programme of his Symphonic Poems, a form he invented as a composer. One must also remember not to overlook the deep religious dimension to Franz Liszt, all too easy in our largely secular Western world. There was a belief that serious transgressions would actually take you to a real place called Hell. There is a feeling of evil and the smell of the sulphurous inferno in this sonata which could have been communicated more strongly. It is replete with almost every human emotion from birth to death, even unto celestial redemption at the conclusion.
Lithograph by Eugène Delacroix - Faust and Mephistopheles Galloping Through the Night
One must perceive the extra-musical dimensions in Liszt and not dismiss them as merely cosmetic to interpretation and therefore dispensable. A deep interpretation requires understanding not only of his complex psyche (at best we can only partially enter the mind of the Other) but the cultural, historical and social priorities of his revolutionary period. There is extensive, expressive and philosophical poetry in Liszt, but today's musical culture has almost submerged it by temptation to pianistic ostentation.
One only has to read accounts of his playing by his students in Weimar to realize how far we have strayed from the original source and embraced the attractive legend of modern celebrity cultural nuances. An unanticipated shock that his playing sometimes 'sounds like filigree lace' springs to mind, this from his eminent pupil in Weimar, the pianist and conductor, Hans von Bulow. Surely one should feel at the conclusion of such a masterpiece ‘What incredible music this is!' rather than 'What an incredible performer this is!' although that can be justified. At the conclusion there should be nothing left to say ...
As an encore Wunder performed an attractive virtuosic piece of his own composition entitled Liberty
17:00 August 26 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Kamil Pacholec piano
This was the same programme Pocholec presented at the Duszniki Zdrój International Chopin Festival on the afternoon of August 11 but with the addition of the Paderewski Cracovienne fantastique in B major Op. 14 No. 6. This is my somewhat modified review of that concert; his approach was similar but I will add observations and highlight significant differences in interpretation that I noticed. It was said Chopin never played the same work in same way twice, allowing spontaneity full flight.
During the 11th International Paderewski Piano Competition in Bydgoszcz in November 2019, where Pacholec was awarded Second Prize, he performed the Mozart Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467. For this performance he was awarded a Special Prize for the best performance of a Mozart piano concerto. I wrote on that occasion: There was affecting good humor in the Allegro maestoso with variations in tempi which made it most expressive. Tone, articulation and touch possessed great finesse. The cadenza was graceful and refined as well as inventive.
This affinity with Mozart showed itself in the elegant, refined expressiveness and improvisatory fantasy of his presentation of the Fantasia in D minor K. 397 (1782).
Paderewski playing himself in the charming period film Moonlight Sonata
In the Paderewski Competition mentioned above, he was also given the Paderewski Music Society of Los Angeles opportunity to give a piano recital in the Paderewski Music Society Recital Series in the artistic season 2020/2021. He also was awarded the Paderewski Pomeranian Philharmonic in Bydgoszcz Prize for the best performance of Paderewski for a Finalist in the Competition. I also was particularly fond of his interpretations where he showed at the time that he had a far more idiomatic feeling for this music than most of the other contestants.
In the Paderewski Miscellanea. Sèrie de moreceaux Op. 16 No. 3 Thème varié in A major (1885–87) he displayed the perfect Paderewskian sentiment.
You know, Paderewski is such an underestimated composer of affecting lyrical and poetic piano music which speaks directly to the heart and sensibility, rather than burdening the intellect with high seriousness.
Naturally, being a great patriot he writes many Polish mazurkas and polonaises but much of his solo piano music reminds me of a superb film score for say an intensely romantic French love affair set in Provence directed by say Francois Truffaut. In our imaginations we could be bowling along a poplar lined route secondaire past hills of vineyards with Catherine Deneuve or Stephane Audran in the passenger seat of a Chapron Citroen DS 3 cabriolet. Her hair is wonderfully awry in the wind as we head towards une belle gentilhommiere and nights of sophisticated sensual bliss, days of cultivated tastes, food and wine. Ah…what we have lost of true civilization and culture in 2020…and now this ghastly pandemic ..... Paderewski had all the greatness that civilization could offer and then came the Great War.
The music of Paderewski wears its learning lightly with poetry, charm, elegance and refinement of a high order. Pacholec understands this perfectly and I loved the glittering tone he brought to all the Paderewski he performed with such elective affinity. From the Humoresques de concert Op. 14 [Book 1 à l’antique] No. 2, - I adore this eloquent and moving Sarabande in B minor (1887) which on this occasion I found more emotional than in Duszniki. Finally the Danses polonaises Op. 9 (1882), a charming and civilized Mazurka in A minor and the more robust Mazurka in A major. The Cracovienne fantastique in B major Op. 14 No. 6 had marvellous internal energy and a spring in its dance-step rhythm!
Pacholec then embraced the four Chopin Mazurkas Op. 30 (1836-37). No. 1 in C minor I found sensitive, idiomatic and deeply expressive. However he tends to over-pedal his interpretations which can affect the clarity of the polyphony and Chopin's complex harmonic adventurism. The key of C-Minor in the nineteenth century associated with the sighing of a love-sick soul. No. 2 in B minor was idiomatic but the contrast was rather strong for my sensibility. No. 3 in D flat major on this occasion I found far more expressive than at Duszniki with excellent rhythm. I appreciated greatly No. 4 in C sharp minor which was a fine performance, affecting emotionally and nostalgically so evocative of past pleasures of the dance. I even detected an Eastern flavour to the harmonies, echoes of Sarmatism that is embedded in some of Chopin. A truly magnificent mazurka in a touching and deep interpretation.
I found the Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60 (1845–46) on this occasion began less aggressively as a soft setting of the mood on the Venetian lagoon excursion. Far more poetic interpretation and less exaggerated dynamically. Chopin himself played the work in many different ways. Here in Warsaw there was more concern for the travails of love, the piece oscillating gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with subtle degrees of heightened emotion.
Artur Bielecki writes illuminatingly of the Impromptu in F sharp major Op. 36 (1839). 'The most mysterious piece is the archly refined Impromptu in F sharp major Op.36. Its form is more complex than that of the other three, its narrative somewhat capricious and surprising. It is a work that is strikingly distinctive. Firstly, it begins, not in lively motion, but contrarily with a quasi-nocturnal, slow-moving theme. Secondly, the middle section (in the key of D major) is marked by a wholly unexpected and gradually heightening heroic tone. Thirdly, the heroic episode breaks off quite suddenly, and by means of an extraordinary modulation-perhaps the "oddest" in the whole of Chopin.' Pacholec was sensitive, poetic and graceful in his approach with just a hint of excessive pedal (for me).
Pacholec really gave himself emotionally to this performance, something I feel he could do more often and embrace and cultivate a more individual voice without fear. This was a fine performance of the Polonaise in F sharp minor Op. 44 (1840–41).
Like many of Chopin's 'heroic' polonaises, the work conveys a strong sense of żal, a Polish word in this context meaning melancholic regret leading to a mixture of passionate resistance, resentment and anger in the face of unavoidable fate. Yet here also with Pacholec were the martial qualities of nobility, grace, resistance, élan, the glitter of the sabre, the proud stroking of the Sarmatian moustache valiantly facing the enemy.
His phrasing emphasized the heroic atmosphere and fierce resistance with, in eloquent contrast, the Chopin vie intérieure in an alluring and poetically phrased cantabile. He showed a strong musical awareness of the power and enhancement of drama through fertile silences. A rhapsodic conclusion and expressive, dynamically slightly restrained final chord.
One charming and elegant encore, the so-called 'Minute' or more correctly "Miniature' Waltz in D-flat major Op.64 No.1. There is a perhaps an apocryphal story that Chopin was inspired by a little dog owned by George Sands at Nohant that was fond of chasing its own tail.
A major young Polish pianistic talent who only needs to further develop his 'voice'.
For more on Pacholec and his Second Prize, here is the link to my complete coverage of the 11th International Paderewski Piano Competition in Bydgoszcz in November 2019 :
21:00 August 25 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Recital of Songs
Jan Lisiecki piano
Matthias Goerne baritone
We were certainly fortunate to have these two eminent artists perform this programme for us in Warsaw as they have just recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon. They are different ages and from different generations but both have had enviable success internationally at the highest level.
Beethoven once commented 'I don't like writing songs' and was not prolific in this genre. I must admit to be vastly more familiar with his chamber, piano, opera and symphonic output than his songs. Many of them were quite new to me apart from being of course sung in German. However I did have a couple of favored songs, mostly about the travails of love arising from his fraught relationship with the 'immortal beloved' and other tragic losses. Such negative occurrences assailed Beethoven as deeply and bitterly as the rest of us.
Resignation (WoO 149)
Indicated to be performed With feeling, yet resolutely, well accented, and sung as though spoken'. Movingly sung by the baritone Matthias Goerner and accompanied sensitively by Jan Lisiecki who appears to have no end to his musical accomplishments.
An die Hoffnung Op. 32 ('To hope')
Dedicated to his friend Josephine Deym who may have been vying for the title of 'immortal beloved'. Affectingly performed by both artists.
Lied aus der Ferne (WoO 137) ('Song from afar')
Lisiecki coped with the complicated and elaborate piano part most skillfully and with sensitivity towards Goerner.
Maigesang Op. 52 No. 4
Sung and accompanied most joyfully and feelingly by Lisiecki concerning the pleasures of Nature in Spring, a season especially dear to Beethoven's heart. Beethoven was attracted to the poetry of Goethe and set eleven of his poems to music.
Der Liebende (WoO 139)
Goerner communicated the excitable state of the lover's mind with great conviction and theatrical display of turbulent emotion.
Sechs Lieder nach Gedichten von Gellert (‘Six songs by Gellert’), Op. 48
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769) the German poet, wrote a famous collection of spiritual odes and songs in 1757 entitled Geistliche Oden und Lieder. Many famous composers set these texts including a renowned cycle by C P E Bach. The character of the music is varied as is the subject ranging from love of one's neighbor, death, the glory of God made visible to us in Nature. The songs such as Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur became popular worldwide.
An die Hoffnung Op. 94 (Later setting of the same text above)
Adelaide Op. 46
Your friend is wandering
lonely in the spring garden,
Softly surrounded by sweet magical light,
That vibrates through swaying blossoming branches,
In reflective waters, in the
In the golden cloud banks of the sinking day,
In the starry realms your likeness radiates,
Ev’ning breezes whisper in
Silver lilies-of-the-valley tinkle in the grass,
Billows booming and nightingales piping,
Once, o marvel! A flower
blooms on my grave,
A flower out of the ashes of my heart,
Clearly shimmering on each crimson petal:
(Translation: M. L. McCorkle)
Possibly Beethoven's best loved song to words by the German poet Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831). The poet sees his lover's name inscribed everywhere (such intensity of sentiment then - her name even glowing on the petals of a flower on his grave).
‘Wonne der Wehmut’ Op. 83 No. 1
Das Liedchen von der Ruhe Op. 52 No. 3
'Almost too serious' for me! The poet rests ultimately in death not in love. Feelingly performed by these artists with the German baritone enriching and filling the Filharmonia in Warsaw.
An die Geliebte (WoO 140) This song was offered to the 'beloved' Antonia Brentano
An die ferne Geliebte Op. 98 ('To the deceased beloved')
Although apparently not so keen on songwriting, Beethoven was the first composer to arrange songs in cycles. These six short poems are arranged as a group to follow each other attacca. The poet believes his songs can reduce the separation between them. The group is dedicated to the Beethoven patron Prince Lobkowitz who had recently lost his wife. The cycle hauntingly sung and performed by Lisiecki and Goerner.
An enjoyable Lieder recital given a standing ovation by the audience in the hall. I must confess to having reservations about the aesthetic and sound balance of these two artists (one being a young solo virtuoso pianist). The mature baritone voice of Goerner I found on occasion rather too forward and slightly unstable in intonation but his dramatic presentation of the songs in this majestic baritone was both moving and such an entertaining personality. The 'flea' encore was most amusing!
17:00 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Lukas Geniušas piano
I must confess to not having heard Geniusas since the his triumphant equal second place with Ingolf Wunder in the 2010 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. How remarkable a coincidence (or clever arrangement) that they both now appear on consecutive days! I was much looking forward to his progression over the last ten years, the development of an individual voice and possibly the development or decline of my own critical faculties since 2010.
Of his final competition performance on 20 October 2010 of the Chopin Concerto E minor Op. 11, I had written:
He chose a moderate Allegro maestoso which
allowed his fine articulation to shine and allowed him time to reveal detail. I
found his innate musicianship made his careful phrasing sound rather like
speech or a charming conversation between friends that became heated at times.
Colouration was attractive and also his tone was warm and not abrasive, his
touch refined. More importantly his discreet pedalling allowed one to hear
individual notes. Fairly rare. He seemed to be 'searching' on occasion rather
philosophically in this movement which meant he lacked a
coherent 'grand vision' of it. I think this movement does not
need to be carefully revealed as it has such youthful
exuberance. The Romance.Larghetto was beautiful, measured with
affecting bel canto and expressed with a tone resembling the
ringing of bells. The movement was cultured, musical but not quite
suffused enough with adolescent yearning for me (Trifonov excelled in this). He
showed a good rapport with the orchestra which was most evident in
the final movement. I felt his krakowiak could have had
more of a 'snap' - a contrast to Wunder of course who may well dance his way to
the first prize.
In short a marvellous performance that together with his other stages may well earn him a good place in the competition.
Allegretto in C minor, (D. 915)
4 Impromptus (D. 935)
In many ways Schubert codified the genre of the Impromptu as when he was composing these pieces the nature of the genre was not all clear. I have a specific sound world in mind for Schubert, one that has analogy with pastel drawings and the search for certainty. For me Schubert is not an oil painter. Much of his solo piano music is that of a deeply introspective figure with desperate rushes of courage and faith in the face of a blighted human existence dominated by the melancholic shadows of death. The blithe Trout Quintet and the strength and determination inherent, in say, the Wanderer Fantasy are exceptions. Although Geniusas played the Allegretto and Impromptus well as one might anticipate, he did not seem to bring a great deal of musical imagination to the interpretation. I felt they were surprisingly monochromatic, presented without the difference in essential individual character that marks them (especially true in the Variations). The contrasts he highlighted did not say a great deal to me in any Schubertian sense. The sensibility and sound of Schubert remained tantalizingly out of reach. The ambiguous hints, half-light, struggles with insecurities and flashes of natural joy and struggle with the shades of experience were absent for me in an otherwise good performance.
Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57
This was a sweet and dreamy (after all it is a lullaby) view of the piece with beautiful gentle tone and touch. It is possibly the most beautiful lullaby in absolute music ever written. This is a work of the rarest originality and he managed the ornamental filigree movingly. The Berceuse after all is a work not based mainly on harmonic or dynamic considerations, but a marvel of texture and sonority.
Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 58
Autograph fragment of the Chopin Sonata in B Minor Op.58
One of the greatest masterpieces in the canon of Western piano music. The opening Allegro maestoso was dramatic and combined nobility and strength even if later it became rather exaggerated dynamically and rather heavy-handed. This was clearly going to be a presentation of Chopin as a heroic grand maître of the piano rather than a composer embracing the cusp of Romanticism, yet at the same time hearkening back to classical restraint. The internal polyphony was clear enough and pointed. The trio had a fine cantabile that made the piano sing. However, the Scherzo was rather disappointing without that Mendelssohnian atmosphere of fairy realms and dreams I feel it needs. It entirely depends on how you conceive this extraordinary movement. The trio again displayed a lyrical Chopin cantabile.
The difficult transition to the Largo was not sufficiently expressive. Here we begin an exquisite extended nocturne-like musical voyage taken through a night of meditation and introspective thought. This great musical narrative of extended and challenging harmonic structure must be presented as a poem of the reflective heart and spirit. I felt Geniusas could have brought a more poetic quality with more direction rather than enveloping us in a dream world of diffuse outline. The Finale. Presto ma non tanto was certainly 'heroic' with oddly placed sforzandos that verged on the harsh and over forceful. He approached this movement more as a virtuoso piano work than a rhapsodic narrative Ballade in character. Certainly it was dramatic and exciting but I felt there should or could be more to the irresistible forward drive.
Tomaszewski again who cannot be bettered:
Thereafter, in a constant Presto (ma non troppo) tempo and with the expression of emotional perturbation (agitato), this frenzied, electrifying music, inspired (perhaps) by the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony…’
In Partial Defense of Ivo Pogorelić
21:00 August 24 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Ivo Pogorelić piano
‘English’ Suite No. 3 in G minor BWV 808
The 'scandals ' associated with this pianist are so well known I shall not try your patience here by recounting them. Even at the outset, it was obvious conventional concert formalities had been rethought. As the audience began to assemble, Ivo Pogorelić remained seated at the piano in street clothes, orange socks and casual shoes, experimenting with touch and sound. When he appeared formally attired in a conventional concert pianist's 'Penguin Suit' I saw it, considering the radicalism of his thinking, as a divertingly ironical and rather amusing judgement on his role.
He opened his recital with the ‘English’ Suite No. 3 in G minor BWV 808. In the mind's ear, one inescapably compared the scintillating recording of the English Suites he made as a young man for Deutsche Grammophon in 1990. The Prelude began conventionally enough, expressive, finger technique not quite what it was, yet a strong sense of polyphony and no sustaining pedal. The articulation had lost some of its extraordinary technical sparkle and the dynamism has faded. However, the Allemande retained the singing, cantabile character of old and was expressive dynamically with judicious use of the pedal and ornamentation. The Courante I found pleasant with the fluid, 'running' characteristics I associate with this type of movement in Bach. He allowed himself to breathe and the tone he produced occasionally had that crystalline quality that once seduced us all. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about.
However, as the Sarbande opened I began to feel uneasy with his individual intrusion into the music. The music journalist Luis Dias informs us that the first known reference to the zarabanda is in the 1539 poem ‘Vida y tiempo de Maricastaña’, written by Fernando de Guzmán Mejía in Panama. It gained popularity first in the Spanish colonies, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Before long, Cervantes was writing about it (a character actually says that Hell was its 'birthplace and breeding place'). It is mentioned in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ (1599). A Jesuit priest referred to it as 'a dance and song so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people'. It spread to Italy in the 17th century and to France, where it became a slow court dance. Baroque musicians of the 18th century began to incorporate the Sarabande as a stylized dance form into suites of dance music, commonly taking its place between the Courante and the Gigue (as here in the third English Suite).
The music of the Sarabande is stately, in slow triple time, with long notes and often heavily ornamented. It begins with the first beat of the bar, and its second beat is very often dotted or tied over to the third. The Sarabande type of operatic aria was a favourite device of the Baroque period. There was a dark emphatic, nobility and gravity in the Pogorelić interpretation but I felt he exaggerated the slowness of tempo and phrasing even of what is considered a stately dance. Much verged dynamically on the mannered, indulgent and artificial. Yet, as is the case with him, on occasion, the dynamic variation he employed was most expressive. The Gavottes I/II I found elegant and rather graceful - rather lightweight in tone with an attractive demi-staccato and at a tempo appropriate to the French inspiration. Harmonic phrasing was pleasant and the ornamentation restrained. I felt he became rather lost in the Gigue for some reason. It has not matured, betrayed technical solecisms and lacked the excitement and drive of the execution during his youth.
Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60
Here I initially felt that Pogorelić had come seriously adrift on the lagoon, especially after the gondola crashed into the wharf at the beginning of the romantic outing. As the gondolier piloted his craft, the music became prey to strange hesitations and silences. The outing became fractured, the tempo frustratingly held back and slow. His sense of deliberation became oppressive. Was there a storm on the lagoon that was interrupting a smooth passage, in addition to the emotional agitation of the lovers? A 'song' did emerge but it verged on the mannered and 'over-expressed'. However, as the work progressed it seemed to hypnotize the audience, as if they were waiting in breathless apprehension for the next extraordinary vision by this conjuror. His charisma had taken over. I began to realize there was an expanded, rather extensive, certainly unaccustomed and submerged, narrative thread taking place in this 'interpretation'. But what was it? Could it be considered seriously ? The performance threw up many thought-provoking reflections.
Storm over Venice J.M.W.Turner
Many years ago in the late 1960s I wrote so-called avant-garde literature. 'Indeterminate Texts' they were called. I admired the so-called French Nouveau Roman of Nathalie Sarraute , Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. This movement influenced the Nouvelle Vague cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and François Truffaut. In music - Boulez, Stockhausen, Kagel, Pousseur, Xenakis and Messiaen. Pogorelić had taken me back to that rather exciting world of new exploratory dimensions. In 1968 I spent some time as an 'observer' at Stockhausen's Cologne Courses for New Music with the Australian composer David Ahern, which rather altered my musical appreciation and indeed life in some ways, attending many important premieres of Stockhausen's music.
The term avant-garde referred then to groups of intellectuals, writers, and artists who voiced ideas and experimented with artistic approaches that challenged the current cultural values. They also shared certain ideals or values which manifested themselves in the non-conformist lifestyles they adopted, a variety of Bohemianism. Stockhausen wrote of his work on Beethoven entitled Opus 1970 'to hear familiar, old, pre-formed musical material with new ears, to penetrate and transform it with a musical consciousness of today.'
A composer is always limited in the full expression of his ideas by the notation which leaves so much up to the interpretative instrumentalist. Penderecki invented an entirely new notation to express his personal musical ideas. Where then does that invisible line of individualism in interpretation lie, a line that cannot be crossed, the frontier that may well have been crossed here. Significant deviation from the Urtext is today considered unforgivable and remains the ethos of much current performance practice. Standardization of interpretation through teaching, performance and ubiquitous recordings is common. Composers themselves often forbid the slightest deviation from their scores and the indications contained therein. Yet when one hears them perform, their view of their own creations can be surprising.
Whether you 'like' the Pogorelić approach to the Barcarolle or not, he showed great courage or supreme arrogance in delivering such wide-ranging deviations as we heard. But we did listen intently ...we were provoked to serious thought...which often does not happen in conventional performances of well-known works. I felt similarly concerning the Chopin Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 45. During his deconstructions, over deliberate harmonic transitions, emphasis of seemingly irrelevant detail, we often became marooned in incoherence. But we listened. I felt it was a portrait of his own, deeply individualistic, internal musical landscape, filtered through a fraught life experience.
Gaspard de la Nuit
Pogorelić gave us a fascinating treatment of Gaspard de la Nuit by Ravel, much at variance with his world famous 1983 recording, considered by many the finest ever made.
‘Gaspard’ is the Persian guardian of the treasures and so ‘The Treasurer of the Night’ creates allusions to someone controlling everything that is jewel-like, dark, mysterious.
The work was inspired by poems of Aloysius Bertrand, the French Romantic prose poet.
Listen! – Listen! – It is I, it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows lit by the gloomy rays of the moon;
The Waves or Ondine by Paul Gaugin (1889)
In Ondine Pogorelić
created an impressionistic flood but only partly the seductive image of a
nymph. He controlled a luminous tone and legato conjuring
the sense of water enclosing a seductive water sprite. However, at times his
touch could be heavy but he used silence in a dramatic and effective manner.
do I see stirring around that gibbet?
Ah! that which I hear, was it the north wind that screeches in the night, or the hanged one who utters a sigh on the fork of the gibbet?
It is the bell that tolls from the walls of a city, under the horizon, and the corpse of the hanged one that is reddened by the setting sun
Le Gibet was atmospherically gloomy and lugubrious, quite as haunting and horrifying as one might desire with those doom-laden repeated notes. The extreme stasis he created gave one the impression of pathological isolation and loneliness in death or punishment for serious transgressions – a body on a rope slowly swaying in the wind. The audience were completely hypnotized and one could 'hear a pin drop'. The shivering feeling of l'aliénation totale that I experienced reading Salammbô by Gustav Flaubert swept over me, those images of crucified lions. The intense atmosphere Pogorelić created was barely breathable...
Scene of Witchcraft Salvator Rosa c. 1646–49
Oh! how often have I heard and seen him, Scarbo, when at midnight the moon glitters in the sky like a silver shield on an azure banner strewn with golden bees.
How often have I heard his laughter buzz in the shadow of my alcove, and his fingernail grate on the silk of the curtains of my bed!
Nicolai Abildgaard, Nightmare (1800) Vestjaellands Art Museum, Sorø
In the original recording of Scarbo, the scampering Pogorelić goblin with evil intentions had become over the years a far nastier and more deeply threatening creature. He exaggerated the grotesque rhythms of this frightful troll terrifying a sleeper in her bed. A strong sense of evil emanated from his representation, a threatening madness. At times the pedal was held full down over many bars, creating a storm of dark sound. He also created a most extraordinary rumbling and buzzing from the bass register which I have never heard before on a Steinway. Were these the 'golden bees' of the poem 'on an azure banner strewn' ? Was it the gremlin's wicked laughter buzzing in the alcove? Did his fingernail grate on the silk of the bed? His pedaling and articulation created a thoroughly nasty piece of work, both threatening and ominously energetic. I felt that the insidious sexuality that pervades this character as depicted by Ravel was strongly and revoltingly presented. One felt Scarbo could be a figure in an irrational erotic dream. The climaxes were terrifying.
A remarkable performance of Gaspard de la Nuit and a recital that winged far beyond the customary and forced one to think outside the conventional interpretative carapace.
17:00 August 24 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Paweł Zalejski (violin)
Bartosz Zachłod (violin)
Piotr Szumieł (viola)
Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741).
String Quartet in D Minor D.810 Death and the Maiden
Death and the Maiden Egon Schiele (1915)
Away! Ah, Away! thou cruel man of bone!
I am still young. Go, instead.
And do not touch me!
Give me thy hand, you fair and tender creature,
I'm a friend, and do not come to punish.
Be of good courage; I am not cruel
You shall sleep gently in my arms
Matthias Claudius (German poet 1740-1815)
realized he was dying when he wrote this magnificent work in 1824. The title of
the work is taken from the theme of the Second Movement after the title of the
song he wrote in 1817. Death hovers like an ominous shadow over the entire
In a letter to Leopold Kupelwieser dated 31 March 1824 he wrote:
Think of a man whose health can never be restored, and who from sheer despair makes matters worse instead of better. Think, I say, of a man whose brightest hopes have come to nothing, to whom love and friendship are but torture, and whose enthusiasm for the beautiful is fast vanishing; and ask yourself if such a man is not truly unhappy.
The Apollon Musagète Quartet in the opening Allegro created a suitably ominous atmosphere of impending tragedy with passionate, prescient statements. The ensemble sound suited the melancholic sentiments. The Andante con moto and its heartfelt melody was replete with regrets. Do the glorious melodies contain embedded seeds of hope? Paweł Zalejski on 1st violin and the others in this ensemble play together as such a well-integrated, even symbiotic group. The variations here yearn so intensely for the fulfilment with the loved one, inevitable loss closer than the horizon, the physical and sensual alternating as always with Schubert with the internalised meditative spiritual. Such a superb expression of increasingly melancholic affections with their beautiful changes of timbre by the quartet.
The Scherzo - Allegro molto -Trio. The theme here is wondrously impassioned and a lyrical evocative melody. Have we returned to anger and passionate regrets? The Presto - Prestissimo is such an infectious theme with similarly moving rhythm. Rhapsodic writing and virtuosic playing with rich variations in colour and timbre throughout the movement. The Apollon Musagète Quartet play with enormous emotional commitment and marvelous ensemble sound. There was irresistible forward momentum and rhythm here. There phrasing was always expressive and never rushed despite the tempo indications leading to a triumphant and victorious conclusion over death, something which Schubert achieved through his compositions.
Kevin Kenner piano
Piano Quintet in E flat major Op. 44
This piece was written for the composer's young bride Clara Wieck not long after they overcame many family obstacles to be married in 1840. It acknowledges her virtuoso piano playing and their mutual love of Bach. Kevin Kenner is a superb chamber music player, unlike many piano soloists. The opening Allegro brillante by everyone involved was joyful, spirited, sensitive and energetic. Such a wonderful 'song' , a heartrending theme rises for the opulent cello of Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741). So simple, lyrical and full of the expression of young ardent love and affection. Were dark clouds forming however? Kenner was magnificent in the agitated apprehensiveness of disappointment. Quite inspired this movement with waves of pure emotion enveloping us. I remembered the wonderful Swedish film Fanny and Alexander (1982) where this work featured. Absolute, unadulterated Romanticism infuses the piece. There was an excellent dialogue and shared phrasing between pianist and string players in the passionate music.
The In modo d'una marcia. Un poco largemente gave me the feeling of hesitant heartbeats in fear of unforeseen obstacles to love, hesitant breaths of apprehension in the nervous system. Also an ardent waves of erotic desire seemed to explode in emotional surges, chambers of the heart that fill and overflow. This sensual agitation settles into lyrical dreams which the ensemble brought to a perfectly poetic conclusion.
The Scherzo: molto vivace sparkled along with playing of great fluency and technique so fluid it was a joy to watch as well as hear. Images of horses galloping through the night to imagined lover's trysts came into my imagination. Is this an imagined coming together of lovers? The composer's mercurial temperament was clear.
In the Finale Allegro ma non troppo with this remarkable ensemble there were some rhapsodic moments of great intensity and rich timbre as harmonies were savoured and explored. Reflective slowing of tempo contrasted with robust physical energy expressed through variation in tempo and dynamics. The influence of Bach on Schumann was highlighted in the contrapuntal conclusion.
To this listener the ensemble playing seemed faultless in their grasp of the quintet. The conclusion of the piece was magnificent in its romantic triumph. How fortunate we were to hear such a wonderful performance altogether!
21:00 August 23 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Dmitry Ablogin Period pianos
[Erard 1858 and Paul McNulty copy of a Buchholtz - see history below]
I had first heard this pianist at the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018 when I was most impressed by his familiarity and command of the period piano, unlike many of the other participants. At the time, when he was only awarded an Honourable Mention, I wrote :
The other places were fairly predictable except Dmitry Ablogin whom I feel is a significant artist with a remarkable ability to re-imagine and recreate familiar works by Chopin and deserved a higher award.
I keenly anticipated the recital this evening. I had further written of his performance of the Chopin F minor Piano Concerto Op.21 during the Final Stage of the competition. The orchestral component was unfortunately unbalanced dynamically on that day.
The Larghetto, on the other hand being rather more exposed for the soloist, revealed his superb, refined tone and touch on this Pleyel. The movement was expressively ardent, refined and romantic in character particularly the phrasing. He produced a moving, beautiful cantabile and the eloquent bassoon counterpoint only added to the heartfelt yearning of this movement. Beautiful and finest I would hear.
I found the Allegro vivace similarly refined with a graceful even radiant jeu perlé with most expressive dynamic variations and nuanced presentation. His style brillant had very affecting clarity of articulation. Here we had colour, charm and elegance. His ornamentation of the final phrases was appealing and the fioraturas had the texture of Venetian lace. His introduction of what one might call ‘echo effects’ into the Rondo was also delightful and revealed what can all too easily become (and does) a monochromatic virtuoso exercise.
Andante cantabile e Presto agitato (MWV U 141)
Ablogin began with an improvised Prelude in the same key as the piece, the activity known as ‘preluding’ in the nineteenth century, which is perfectly in keeping with these period instruments and performances on them. I was immediately struck by the much lower relative dynamic of the period piano in the Filharmonia which took some minutes to pleasurably accustom myself to once again.
Mendelssohn's Andante cantabile e Presto agitato was written in 1838 for the Musikalisches Album of 1839. I was reminded of his earlier Rondo capriccioso, Op 14. The Presto utilizes insistent repeated notes permitted by the double-escapement action of the French Érard pianos. Mendelssohn was familiar with such instruments in the 1830s.
The introduction is in the style of a Song without Words, which Ablogin understood well and presented with refined lyricism. The turbulent Presto agitato followed which was impressively presented with uncomplicated delight and finesse.
Etude in C sharp minor Op. 25 No. 7 (1837)
The affecting cantabile left hand song emerges so expressively on earlier instruments with the varied colour of the different registers being so pronounced. Ablogin revealed these qualities on the Érard which are also present in the Chopin Prelude in B minor Op.28 No.6
Nocturne in D flat major Op. 27 No. 2
Again his cantabile and legato were attractive in terms of nuance and expressive in tone and touch. His pianissimo was pronounced yet carried on the earlier instrument with fioraturas having the texture of gossamer. This refinement of dynamic is only achievable on period pianos to the same degree. Ablogin created a dream atmosphere of the night in this Nocturne.
Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major Op. 61
I make no apology for repeating elsewhere my introduction to this work as background facts do not change although the interpretative approach is always completely different.
This work contains all the troubled emotion and desire for strength in the face of the multiple adversities that beset the composer at this late stage in his life. This work, the first in the so-called ‘late style’ of the composer, was written during a period of great suffering and unhappiness. He laboured over its composition. What emerged is one of his most complex of his works both pianistically and emotionally. Chopin produced many sketches for the Polonaise-Fantaisie and wrestled with the title. He had written: ‘I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call’. This uncertainty indicates surely he was embarking on a journey of compositional exploration along untrodden paths. Even Bartok one hundred years later was shocked at its revolutionary nature. The work is an extraordinary mélange of genres and styles in a type of inspired improvisation that yet maintains a magical absolute musical coherence and logic. He completed it in August 1846.
The opening tempo is marked maestoso (as with his two concerti) which indicates ‘with dignity and pride’. Ablogin gave me the correct feeling of an improvisatory, rather ambiguous 'searching for certainty' about the opening of this great masterwork and throughout as it progressed. There was a certain dreamlike cultivation of poetic fantasy elements, almost a meditation, fertilized in the imagination of his expressive emotion. This worked up on occasion to a passionate sense of żal, an untranslatable Polish word in this context meaning melancholic regret leading to a mixture of passionate resistance, resentment and anger in the face of unavoidable fate. There was much rich counterpoint and polyphony explored here (of which Chopin was one of the greatest masters since Bach). A complex work, movingly performed, written when Chopin was moving towards the cold embrace of death.
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120 (1819-23)
Autograph of the Diabelli Variations
What a fortunate hinge of fate that the Electorate of Bavaria decided to close the monasteries in 1803! Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) had trained for the priesthood but was ejected during the secularization process and sought alternative employment as a musician. He had shown previous minor distinction in this field of endeavor, composing pleasant, undemanding light music. As a clever publishing ploy he invited fifty eminent contemporary composers to contribute variations on a waltz he had composed and no doubt wished to publicize and presumably sell in profitable numbers. It was published in 1823-4 as the Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (Grove translate this as the 'Patriotic Artists' Association'). Beethoven published as his contribution the 33 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von Diabelli. He wrote it over a relatively long period with significant interruptions (the Missa Solemnis was composed during this period and quotations from it can be found in the variations). More accurately perhaps Veränderungen could be translated as 'Transformations' which may have heralded a new and different genre to 'Variationen' in Beethoven's mind.
Schubert, Hummel, Czerny, the young Liszt (8 years old) and Beethoven (who
commented that the waltz was merely 'a cobbler's patch' despite being a
friend of Diabelli) all agreed to provide one variation. Beethoven in a
characteristically obdurate, perhaps cantankerous gesture, rose to the
challenge and decided to create 33 Variations on this insignificant scrap of a
theme. Perhaps he was trying to demonstrate his consummate power to transform
an elephantine leaden tune into a golden work of art.
Unlike the beautiful theme of the Goldberg Variations that is so immediately seducing, where exactly is Diabelli's theme? Hidden somewhere among the heavy nineteenth century waltzing posteriors? Yet Beethoven was obsessed with writing variations and pressed ahead to create the very apotheosis of the variation form. I see it in a way as the splitting of an atom to create entire new worlds of manifold associations and moods, sometimes explosive, on many occasions bucolic and humorous (the parody of the Don Giovanni aria), from time to time contemplative. The work explores the entire gamut of human experience in the transformations of this small fragment. One cannot help but reflect on the analogous cosmic fate of the Arietta theme in his Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor Op. 111. May one draw any significance in these 33 variations as one further final statement, pushing his own boundaries and limits in the face of the isolation of profound deafness. Yet we read he maintained his robust sense of humour to the end.
One was immediately struck in this performance by Ablogin of the extraordinary contrasts in colour, texture, timbre and content of the variations that became immediately apparent in the period piano with its varied sound nature and character of the different registers. It was rather a revelation in associative meaning and penetration of the musical landscape of variation form of which Beethoven was a master. I cannot analyze the 33 Variations individual detail here suffice to say we were taken through many emotional moods, ranging from the deeply meditative to bucolic rusticity, almost polyphonic and fugal structural intellectualism as well as exploring enlightening soundscapes for the ear. I felt Ablogin was remarkably adventurous to present us with this sensitive, revelatory performance which confirmed his outstanding qualities as a pianist on period instruments.
His encore was a spirited performance of the Beethoven Rondo in C major Op.51 No.1.
21:00 August 22 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Vadym Kholodenko piano
Sławomir Rozlach double bass
Paweł Zalejski (violin)
Bartosz Zachłod (violin)
Piotr Szumieł (viola)
Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741)
String Quartet in G minor (D. 18) (1810)
Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I still hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven? [Schubert to Josef von Spaun]
This modest early string quartet written when Schubert was 13 indicates some interesting aspects of his career and character. He received violin lessons as a child from his father and there was a domestic string quartet at home, as was customary before recordings. At the time of this early quartet he was a singer in the Royal Chapel Choir and attended the Vienna City Seminary where he played in orchestra every evening. never contemplated virtuosity for its own sake either in his instrumental playing or composition. Much of his early music was written for Liebhaber - amateur lovers of music.
The Andante – Presto vivace was given a rather haunting, possibly prescient opening by the Musagète Quartet. The Presto bloomed and grew out of this with passionate rhythms. The quartet has fine intonation and rich ensemble sound. The Menuetto possessed a most charming Viennese gemütlichkeit with a rather childish and innocent theme on the fine first violin. The Andante gave me the impression of a happy being wandering through the summer countryside. One cannot help reflecting what destiny had in store for this blighted flower. The final Presto was tremendously energetic with the Musagète, so accomplished in its polyphonic fugal writing and brought off with enviable vitality and youthful exuberance by this quartet.
String Quartet No. 3 'Pages of an Unwritten Diary'
I have spent decades searching for and discovering new sounds. I have also closely studied the forms, styles and harmonies of past eras. I continue to adhere to both principles … Krzysztof Penderecki
The String Quartet No. 3 can almost be considered a programmatic work, possibly a kind of personal journal recalling various stages in his life. The composition is in one movement, composed in a different sound world from his previous quartets. Laying aside the exploration of sound we have references to the quartet form established from Haydn and Beethoven to Bartók. The Grave introduction is so dark, as much in Polish art from the cinema, the theatre and music. The heritage of the tragic national destiny through the centuries. Lively sections alternated with more sentimental or 'romantic' ones. There is a melody in the Adagio notturno and a certain peculiar motif of distinctly folk character. As the composer explained, it is a traditional Hutsul kolomyjka that he had heard in his youth played on the violin by his father, who had come from Rohatyn in southeast Poland. This theme 'grew so much in the successive variations that it nearly took control of my whole piece'. The Musagète Quartet understood this demanding music well, performing with passion, authority, emotion, accuracy and great musical conviction.
Piano Concerto in E minor Op. 11
'Chopin often performed his concertos in assorted small arrangements: a practice common among his contemporary composers-pianists. Unfortunately, no version for strings and piano that could be attributed to Chopin has survived' (Kevin Kenner).
Chopin’s two piano concertos were composed within a year of each other. I am always amazed at the nature of true genius as it was written when Chopin was in his late teens. At its premiere in 1830, he played the piano part himself, and the concert marked his final public appearance as a pianist in Poland. Soon Chopin was to leave for Vienna and then Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The opening Allegro movement has the character maestoso which we find in the noble and proud polonaises, a measured grandiosity that should still be dispatched with poetry. Kholodenko managed this movement with a magnificently conceived maestoso statement, opening at a moderate, declamatory and noble, aristocratic tempo on the Fazioli instrument. The opening theme was immensely expressive from both the quartet and pianist. The styl brillant of the period, influenced by Hummel, was marked with glittering tone, imaginative variations in colour, nuance and articulation from this pianist, a true jeu perlé with affecting rubato. But I never felt rushed and breathless, losing the rich harmonic transitions, as occurs with too many pianists. The chamber accompaniment seemed subtle, refined and winningly appropriate, the cello counterpoint in particular. Rhapsodic sweeps reminded me of Polish eagles taking updrafts in the mountainous High Tatras of the Pieniny. There were calm moments of reflection and fiorituras as delicate as Koniakowska lace.
Attempts to transform musical experience into the very different language of words is fraught with frustration and often despair. Bear with me as I fight to describe in concrete words the effect this movement has on me. The divine melody at this slow tempo is perfectly ardent, one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Lethargy from dreams begins to awake in a slow movement of unblemished, illusioned rapture. I conceive of it in daylight. In sunlight-dappled groves, lovers lie in long grass by a stream among birches and willows as summer clouds drift hesitantly towards the horizon. The heart rises with the swallow as leaves fall and drift on a slight breeze. Gossamer spider webs glisten in the sun in this slow dance of the heart. A threatening shadow of doubt and a sudden cool chill in the air soon passes as dusk falls, the last pianissimo note of love thrown tenderly towards us by hand.
The opening of the Romanze-Larghetto, particularly with this chamber ensemble, has always taken me on an imaginative poetic flight as it did Chopin himself. In this Larghetto (there is another in the F-minor concerto)– its character clarified in the score, following Mozart as a Romanza (the sole occasion Chopin used this designation in a piece). The movement is such a delicate and ardent poetic reverie. The rich mahogany timbre of the Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741 played by Piotr Skeweres was in superb and achingly beautiful counterpoint with the piano.
Kholodenko brought deeply affecting emotional understanding to this divine movement. The reduced forces and refined counterpoint in the chamber form of the concerto rendered it almost painfully intimate.
Chopin wrote to his close friend Tytus Woyciechowski in a letter:
'It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.'
The Rondo follows attacca, without a pause, rousing us from poetic dreams and reveries. Here we encounter the playfulness, dancing, acting and extreme good humor of Chopin the young man, a neglected aspect of his character in the received paradigm of the later consumptive melancholic. Kholodenko and the quartet gave us a wonderfully expressive, slightly restrained performance of this movement, so often rushed like an express train in virtuoso display. This was not the case in a view of the Rondo full of charm, refinement, grace and colour born of the true elegance of the styl brillant. Here there was the character of the Polish krakowiak dance, a syncopated, duple-time popular dance in contemporary Kraków. In this glorious chamber version, the characteristic rhythm, liveliness and amusement was expressed without being overburdened with excessive ostentatious display. Again that eloquent rich cello counterpoint emerged that so moves the heart.
The entire musical population of Warsaw was drawn to the National Theatre for the premiere. One young singer, who preoccupied Chopin's heart, was a certain Konstancja Gładkowska. ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair' as he romantically described her. She sang the cavatina from Rossini’s La donna del lago.
A deeply satisfying performance that the audience applauded endlessly...
21:00 August 21 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Nikolai Lugansky piano
Nikolai Lugansky, that great aristocrat of the keyboard, opened his recital with the Beethoven Piano Sonata in A major Op. 101. This emotionally affecting work is the composer at his most intimate and sensitive. He (according to Schindler) described the first movement as containing 'impressions and reveries.' It is a calm movement certainly (Allegretto ma non troppo). In German this short movement is described by him as 'Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung' (rather lively with the most ardent perception). This feeling of some sadness was rather in the background. Lugansky brought a properly weighted chords and a 'correct' approach to the 'Beethoven sound' with attractive and moving cantabile, transparency and clarity.
The second movement, 'Lebhaft, marschmässig' (Lively, a restrained march), is marked in Italian Vivace alla marcia and I felt Lugansky captured this contrasting mood and catchy rhythm very effectively. The Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto, bears the German description 'Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll (Slowly and yearningly). Lugansky could have made this more yearning and poetic to my mind, when personal, intimate emotions were more poetically powerful and less restrained in expressive depth than today. The mournful, meditative mood could have been more introspective and possibly serene.
The finale Allegro has such a spirited main theme - joyfulness and even understated humour on display. This movement carries the odd description 'Geschwind, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entschlossenheit' (Quickly, but not rushed and with determination). The development contains a brilliant Fugue which I felt Lugansky explored polyphonically in great detail. There was magnificent triumphalism in the Fugue. This sonata was composed just before the far more famous Piano Sonata No. 29, the 'Hammerklavier' and is unaccountably neglected as a masterpiece.
Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109
He then performed the Beethoven Sonata in E major Op. 109. This sonata was composed in 1820 when Beethoven was completely deaf and suffering ill-health. It is an especially lyrical work. Although clearly a fine performance, the work is a profound personal statement by Beethoven which should give an impression of internal life.
There are three movements:
- Vivace ma non troppo — Adagio espressivo
- Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo
The reflective parts of the Adagio espressivo are of the deepest philosophical introspection which I felt he did not sufficiently penetrate. Lugansky built the opening into a type of classical ecstasy. The sonata breaks nearly all the rules of traditional sonata form. The Prestissimo emerged as an immaculate yet irresistible force. However, I remained unsure of his ability to communicate his obvious emotional commitment to the piece. Here is needed the expression of divine nostalgic laments, regrets in life, the meditative preoccupations and loss of love leading to an ultimate resignation under the stronger force of destiny. His staccato articulation throughout was very fine with much colour and nuance relieving the granite.
Yet I was unaccountably both moved and unmoved by this performance. Beethoven for me sometimes requires the communication of feeling of the struggle of human inadequacy against unflinching fate, the anger that this can generate when intense lyricism has been experienced, lost and then remembered with yearning. Beethoven for me requires what one might term the 'condiments of human imperfection', some temperamental roughness and not classical perfection.
A theme and six variations, each with a different character and partly contrapuntal texture, is contained within the final movement Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo. The writing veers between moments of lyrical cantabile and the severely declamatory. The driving rhythmic energy of the fifth variation gives the impression, at least to begin with, of a complex, many-voiced chorale-like fugue. Lugansky built this focal movement to a concluding peak of powerful armour that resolved into quiet resignation at the conclusion. Beethoven’s approach to the variation form at the conclusion is far freer here than in his previous sonatas.
Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60
‘Le Palais Ducal’, Claude Monet, 1908 (a painting rarely seen)
I have always conceived this work as depicting the tenderness of a pastel drawing or watercolour as opposed to the concrete, forceful depiction of an oil painting. I am afraid I did not warm to this performance of the Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60 (1845–46) the charming gondolier's folk song sung to the swish of oars on the historic Venetian Lagoon or a romantic canal, often concerning the travails of love. Most of the piece oscillates gently between forte, piano and pianissimo with only subtle degrees of heightened emotion throughout. The opening tonal mood with such a heavy octave rather than a gentle setting of the tonal mood. High voltage passions are not expressed in a declamatory manner here, but civilized degrees of heightened passion occur during this outing on the lagoon. Towards the conclusion I felt he tended to exaggerate the emotional life within. We are not surviving a storm on the Titanic however impressive the drama is when presented in this way. I will never believe this is an explosive virtuoso work and Lugansky presented it as one.
It was often observed that Chopin played with a much lower relative dynamic
than were are used to today i.e. forte for him was
perhaps mezzo-forte for us or even softer. This together with
and as a result of the limitations of the instruments of the day
means the dynamic scale of the work is not gigantic. Pianissimo on a
Pleyel is the barest perceptible whisper.
Berlioz once described Chopin's own playing
'....the utmost degree of softness, piano to the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings, so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one's ear to it as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.' (Quoted in Rink, Sampson ,Chopin Studies 2 p.51).
Are we simply to ignore these contemporary descriptions convinced that 'we moderns must know better'? Chopin would have adored the modern Steinway? If so, would he have written for it in the same way? Of course I would never suggest imitating this type of thing in a modern concert hall but I feel these are all important considerations in terms of dynamic scale when considering this great masterpiece.
So personal, the view one holds of Chopin and his works.
Nocturne in D flat major Op. 27 No. 2
Lugansky had moments of subtle, tender and nostalgic reflection here which were essentially movingly poetic in character.
Ballade in F minor Op. 52
This work is one of the undisputed greatest works of Western piano literature Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. In the structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented an entirely new musical material. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination.
Lugansky expressed a particularly beautiful and simple beginning, full of the childish innocence I think Chopin wanted in the opening of this 'opera of life'. There were many moments of affecting poetry and great internal drama during the narrative he sculpted. The work unfolded sufficiently towards the final triumphant statement chord of faith. He invested the work with an air of resignation at the conclusion although slightly rushed. For me his rubato lacked deep poetic inflection and the dynamic tended to exaggeration. I felt he could have made more of the internal musical landscape of the work, the emotional neurosis that suffuses Chopin, despite it being in all external respects, a very fine polished performance.
Prélude, Choral et Fugue, FWV 21 (1884)
Choral. Poco più lento – Poco Allegro
Fugue. Tempo I
This Franck work was well described by Adrian Corleonis as ‘an elaborately figured, chromatically inflected, and texturally rich essay in which doubt and faith, darkness and light, oscillate until a final ecstatic resolution.’
After hearing a piece by Emmanuel Chabrier in April 1880, the Dix pièces pittoresques, Franck observed 'We have just heard something quite extraordinary -- music which links our era with that of Couperin and Rameau.' The forms Prélude, Choral and Fugue here are clearly symbolic of their Bach inspired counterparts. The motives are obviously related to the Bach Cantata 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen', and also the 'Crucifixus' from the B minor Mass. César Franck transforms these with his own unique solutions and cyclical form.
The influence of the organ and his many years composing sacred texts are obvious here. The pianist Stephen Hough in a note remarked "Alfred Cortot described the Fugue in the context of the whole work as 'emanating from a psychological necessity rather than from a principle of musical composition' (La musique française de piano; PUF, 1930)." The work was finally premiered in January 1885.
Luganski gave a magnificent, virtuosic performance of this masterpiece, which indicates his complete grasp of its complex formal structure and manifest philosophical associations. The opulent organ timbre, texture and density from the piano were monumental yet never harsh dynamically by this master of the keyboard. Noble, tragic and grand in all conceptual respects, raising deep spiritual emotions from this secular musical construction. His articulation cascaded like a glittering waterfall.
This work is an anguished spiritual journey from darkness into the light of dawn, leading to personal redemption in the Choral. Finally in the complex and embattled Fugue, Lugansky resolved into the return of the triumphant Choral theme – like a great chiming of bells. A great performance of this work to my mind.
Rachmaninoff and Mendelssohn as encores
Overall a most impressive and thought-provoking recital of the highest pianistic achievement.
Ewa Leszczyńska soprano
Paola Poncet historical piano
Fabio Biondi conductor, violin
This was a carefully designed and fascinating programme devoted entirely to the juvenile Mendelssohn. He wrote all the pieces on the programme between the ages of 12 and 14. I do not have detailed knowledge of this period of flowering genius, so I suggest you read the fully informative downloadable programme notes for this concert attached to the programme schedule for the festival https://festiwal.nifc.pl/en/2020/kalendarium. I will give you my impressions as the concert unfolded the inexplicable brilliance and genius of the young Mendelssohn.
Felix Mendelssohn at the age of 12
(Oil sketch by Karl Bergas)
String Symphony No. 2 in D major, MWV N 2
The first aspect I noticed apart from the members of Europa Galante standing, was Interestingly and divertingly, the Sinfonias had a charming obbligato piano part played on a beautiful Pleyel concert grand piano by Paola Poncet. The Allegro was lively an winningly energetic with uncomplicated high spirits - breathtaking prodigious inventiveness! The Andante was a lyrical melody, the affective emotions surely prefiguring the adult Mendelssohn. The Allegro vivace lively but not emotionally demanding - a delight of the innocent musical mind.
Largo and Allegro for piano and strings
A masterly control of improvisation and in mood. The writing, despite its brevity, surely a hint of what was to come in Mendelssohn's later popular piano concertos.
Three-Part Fugue in G minor
Three-Part Fugue in D minor
As is well known in Leipzig, Mendelssohn was deeply respectful of J.S.Bach and wrote many works with a polyphonic internal life as well as resuscitating the St. Matthew Passion. These two works indicated an extraordinarily precocious command and authoritative view of the form. Biondi's choice of these two works was remarkably prescient and imaginative.
String Symphony No. 7 in D minor MWV N 7
The Allegro was vibrant and energetic with wit, tremendous verve and vitality. There was a most creative interchange of polyphonic parts between members of the orchestra. The curiously named Andante amorevole (loving or affectionate) was an affecting movement with an engagingly sensitive melody on the cusp of the truly Romantic in expression. The Menuette I found rather catchy in its tune and rhythm as well rather virtuosic in quality. The final also rather polyphonic Allegro molto was performed with gusto and panache, a feeling of 'almost too serious'. I loved this high-spirited performance.
Salve Regina for soprano and strings
Ewa Leszczyńska has a glorious, pure, lyric soprano voice of perfect pitch and intonation - so rare. Her phrasing was moving, great clarity of diction and her delivery as smooth as cream. Great further potential for this voice and clearly a most sensitive musician, if understandably slightly nervous this evening. A perfect voice for Mozart... I was reminded of the great Austrian soprano, the young Gundula Janowicz.
Fugue in E flat major, Op. 81 No. 4
Another fine example of Mendelssohn's polyphonic precociousness. Yet another extended example of Mendelssohn's early fascination with Bach.
String Symphony no. 5 in B flat major for strings MWV N 5
The Allegro vivace has that uncomplicated vivacity and tuneful invention, harmonic adventurism, that so fascinated the English with their beloved Mendelssohn. The Andante was a pleasantly reflective, emotionally undemanding movement, obbligato piano, with a delicate and refined conclusion on the piano. The Presto was so tuneful - music written to give sheer musical pleasure. The most attractive and precocious authoritative polyphonic movement we have heard in this concert. Leipzig - Bach - Mendelssohn. Such music would have been so popular at Vauxhall Gardens or Ranelagh in London, as Mendelssohn became later in life.
Violin Concerto in D minor MWV O 3
The Allegro of this concerto with Biondi as the outstanding solo violinist has a significant degree of nobility. The theme on the solo violin is melodically so eloquent and clearly prefigures (in 1821-23 between the ages of 12 and 14) the grace and melody of his great violin concerto later in life. Biondi with his orchestra created some telling Mendelssohnian phrasing. The extended Andante had a beautiful cantabile theme on the violin - so genuinely ardent in sentiment for a mere youth - floating effortlessly above an inventive pulsating, ostinato orchestral accompaniment. The Allegro which followed attacca is full to the brim of Romany energy - what one might call a 'driving lyricism'. Biondi and the orchestra gave the work great spontaneity and verve.
It astonishing that the remarkable juvenilia heard in this concert remained unperformed and forgotten for at least a century.
Before the encore Biondi addressed the audience : 'It is incredible we are here and it is because you are the best! Poland is a fantastic country!' As a commemoration of those who have died in the pandemic, they performed the melancholic and moving Andante from the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 1 in C Minor written when Mendelssohn was 15.
21:00 August 20 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Corina Belcea violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Axel Schacher (violin)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)
String Quartet in A major, Op. 18 No. 5 (1790)
Beethoven was in his late 20s and living in Vienna when he started to write his six Op. 18 string quartets. Uneducated ('I do everything badly except compose'), rough-mannered, but with an alluringly intense personality and of undoubted musical genius, he had managed to secure the patronage, both as composer and pianist, of Vienna's cosmopolitan aristocracy. The A major quartet is something of a homage to Mozart, bearing many similarities with his K.464 ('Drum') quartet in the same key. It had particularly impressed Beethoven, who is reported to have said 'That’s a work! That’s where Mozart said to the world: Behold what I might have done for you if the time were right!'
Vienna in 1790
The Belcea with their inspiring mixture of energy, panache and fierce integrity presented the unconflicted music of the Allegro with the greatest charm and grace. The Minuet.Trio was so civilized and Viennese in gemütlichkeit character. The intimate musical communication this quartet possess give a remarkable organic feel to their interpretations. They seem able to raise all the works they perform to the highest echelons of Western art. The Andante 'fugal' writing I found humorous and well-intentioned, unmarked by bitter life experience. The exuberant rhythms and enlivening harmonies made me want to dance. Their detaché articulation, colour spectrum, bowing and phrasing are all life enhancing and beyond compare. Such a beautiful plaintive melody appeared on the solo violin. The Allegro generously gave us bursts of irresistible energy with marvellous counterpoint. I could not help reflecting on the development that is clear within this Op.18 set. The conclusion was perfectly gauged in mood and musical finality.
String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 No. 3
Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky (1752-1836)
This was followed by the Beethoven 'middle-period' String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 No. 3 'Razumovsky' (1806). This set shows a formidable development in style over the Op.18 set, even after a relatively short period of 8 years. The Russian Ambassador to Vienna, Count Andreas Kirillovich Razumovsky (1752-1836) commissioned them. Razumovsky was a principal patron of Beethoven until his wealth was almost wiped out by a disastrous fire in 1814. He maintained a permanent string quartet from 1808 to 1816 led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) who played in many premières of Beethoven's works including quartets. Razumovsky himself, an accomplished musician, occasionally played second violin.
This quartet suited the virtuosity of the members of the Belcea outstandingly well. What the revolutionary opening Introduzione. Andante con moto - Allegro vivace must have appeared like emotionally to Beethoven's contemporary audience! Such a subtle overture followed by the eruption of unconstrained life force. Motifs and phrases thrown energetically one to another by the instrumentalists seemed not unlike watching a doubles match in tennis. I was singularly impressed by the richness of timbre, 'banter' and a sense of irresistible invention.
Performance with score in 2020 rather than 1820
The prominent pizzicato cello writing in the second movement, Andante con moto quasi allegretto, was followed by the expression of reflective feelings.The Belcea make dramatic use of silence. The theme here is regretful but not despairing. This melancholy movement was possessed of an eloquent, although restrained, almost bucolic folk character reminiscent perhaps of Central-Eastern Europe. One tends to forget just how far east Vienna is situated on the continent.
The Minuet. Grazioso was charming with darker undertones colouring the lyrical themes. The Allegro molto finale was taken at a blistering tempo of irresistible, unstoppable momentum by the Belcea. Once again a highly burnished virtuosity was revealed. This facility leaves one breathless and in awe of the musical coordination and cooperation required to bring the movement off with such spectacular élan and panache. Corina Belcea always seems to offer 200%, a type of cauldron of hypnotic power with the most passionate of perfectly judged dramatic pauses. The ensemble expressed fully the splendour of Beethoven, the dramatic sense of renewal in this quartet. One felt the composer himself would have been overjoyed.
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127 (1824)
Finally the Belcea approached the String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, which is perhaps the most accessible of the 'late' quartets. In November 1822 Beethoven was commissioned by Prince Nikolas Galitzin to compose a number of new quartets. Galitzin adored the music of Beethoven and was one of his most generous patrons. It seems almost inconceivable to the normal mind that Beethoven was at this time also completing the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, yet promised to deliver the first quartet by March 1823. Naturally enough this plan was delayed until late 1824. During the four grim years of life that remained to him, Beethoven concentrated exclusively on the quartet genre, composing three for the Prince and two that were not commissioned (Op.131 and Op. 135).
The initial striking aspect of those forceful, declamatory truly Maestoso chords of Op.127 was the granite firmness in the blend of ensemble sound. The melody emerged as a vein of gold washed clean from rock. Great mobility and passionate lyricism was evident here. With this quartet, their intimate integration gives rise to unmatched intensity of sound. The approach to Beethoven is fully laden with the excitement, electrical internal energy and high virtuosic efficiency we have come to expect of the classical style envisioned through the acute lens of a more modern world.
The last portrait of Beethoven - a chalk drawing of Beethoven made in 1824 by
Stephan Decker (Künsthistoriches Museum Vienna)
The Adagio ma non troppo et molto cantabile is a serene set of variations. Life stirred in pianissimos of the heart leading to the creation of a picturesque dream world of internal spirituality. 'Heartbeats' created an eloquent sculpture in sound before us. Without wishing to descend into vulgar hyperbole, heaven appeared to descend to earth revealing innermost spiritual thoughts. The cello sang a n affectingly lyrical cantilena. I felt the deeply poetic dialogues and ravishing theme between pairs of instruments was phrased ardently and expressively. This became a private spiritual communion with the soul of Beethoven - silence towards heartbeats to ethereal dematerialization.
One knows intuitively that what the deaf composer was hearing in his inner mind after transmission to the material world of music notation and instrumental sound, was probably a pale refection of his true conception. As T.S. Eliot once observed 'Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow'. In the Decker portrait above, gaze into the eyes that have witnessed internal emotional worlds beyond conception and at the grim determination of the mouth of this profoundly deaf composer of genius.
The pizzicato opening to the Scherzando - vivace - Presto was so exciting, as if we were riding the waves of existence. The musical sense they brought to this movement was so illuminating. The pregnant silences were full of meaning and drama, as were the szforzandos. The Finale. Allegro carried one along with the tremendous forward momentum of a Napoleonic cannon ball towards its target, the astonishing coda ultimately exploding in a fortissimo conclusion just as one felt one had escaped. There was a desperately joyful conclusion here, a lyrical resignation, yet courageous defiance, of destiny.
17:00 August 20 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Kevin Kenner historical piano
Ján Prievozník double bass
Krzysztof Karpeta cello
Elżbieta Mrożek-Loska viola
Martyna Pastuszka violin
Before I begin my review of this beautifully refined, sonically exceptional concert, I would like to draw your attention to the rare copy of the piano being used for both works. Kevin Kenner decided against using a Graf instrument in favour of this forgotten maker of Polish pianos. The National Chopin Institute commissioned a copy from the maker Paul McNulty.
CC-f4 after Buchholtz, 1826
Single moderator, double moderator, una corda, sustaining pedals, walnut.
Options: mahogany, ormolu
(about 236cm/126cm/35cm/about 170kg)
Fryderyk Buchholtz (1792-1837) was born in
The example for Paul McNulty’s copy was a 1826
Buchholtz piano in Kremenets, a masterpiece showing the influence of the
The copy of Buchholtz piano made by Paul McNulty for Warsaw Chopin Institute is perfectly suited to Chopin’s early works. This instrument reveals Buchholtz’s self-assured design, with technical and acoustic identity sounding forever Polish.
* * * * * * * *
Piano Quintet in E flat major Op. 17
Warsaw by Bernado Bellotto also known erroneously as 'Canaletto', his cousin (1722-1780)
Nowakowski spent most of his life in Warsaw. There, he wrote his best-regarded mature work, the Piano Quintet in E flat major op. 17 (c. 1841) written for piano, violin, cello, and double bass. It is a challenge today to evaluate Nowakowski’s output. Much of his work, including the symphonies, Clarinet Concerto, Thema und Variationen for piano and orchestra, and chamber works, the Piano Quintet Op. 10, the String Quintet, Piano Trio, and Duo for Violin and Piano, have not survived.
The moment they began the Novakowski Quintet I was struck by the alluring texture, timbre and balanced sound on the period instruments. The colours Kenner obtained from the Buchholtz instrument seemed to meld and unify the rich mahogany intonation.
Blithe and untroubled, the work opens with the emergence of a most glorious and affecting melody on the piano. This beautiful song is so reminiscent of Chopin and thankfully recurs often throughout the movement. The Buchholtz at times seemed to murmur in the background of the outstanding string playing as a type of gentle watercolour wash, a background to a rural scene. Continuing this metaphor, the Presto movement exploded like a summer thunderstorm, so prevalent on the Mazovian plain and a familiar eruption over Warsaw in summer months. Thunder and lightning with those flexible, swaying Polish trees in a gale. An urgent driving melody surfaces as a type of dance before the storm returns. All this was so convincingly depicted by these committed musicians, although the intonation of the violin was unstable at times. The Romance. Andante third movement had the fragility of a love song, so reminiscent of the Larghetto movement of Chopin's F minor piano concerto. Sweet romantic sentiments are expressed here rather than the disabling effects of fiery passions although deeper feelings and regrets do fleetingly emerge. The overall timbre of the ensemble at these moments was both arresting and affecting. The Rondo. Allegro, as led first by the cello, is a moving but simple melody with a rural ambience, not urban or sophisticated.
I was reminded during this charming piece of the incidental music, so emotionally undemanding but so relaxing in a civilized human sense, that was heard in the Assembly Rooms at Bath Spa in England in the nineteenth century or at numerous continental cures and locations to 'take the waters' - and none the worse for that modesty. We cannot always be submerged in 'the dark night of the soul', particularly now during a pandemic when there is so little choice offered by such an undiscriminating enemy. Kenner and the ensemble brought a stylish atmosphere to their playing of this rediscovered masterpiece, and I for one welcomed it, even in a mask!
Piano Quintet in A major ‘Trout’ Op. 114 (D. 667) 1819
Tema con variazione. Andantino
Finale. Allegro giusto
Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is loved universally and must be the most popular chamber music piece ever written. The young Schubert had made a summer trip to the Austrian Alps and was overwhelmed by its natural beauty. One tends to forget in a world without electricity, chemical pollution or industrial noise how unsullied Nature must have profoundly inspired all the human senses - smell, touch, and sound transformed into music.
Schubert decided to use themes from his song ‘Die Forelle’ (’The Trout’, D550) as the basis for the lyrical and renowned fourth movement of his Quintet. The work is in five movements, and unusual in being written to include a double bass to replace the more usual second violin. The sound texture is as clear as a joyful mountain stream, the ravishing melodies painting mountain landscapes and invigorating crystal air. The dashing, flashing piano accompaniment in the fourth movement so vividly paints a portrait of a trout wiggling with the energy of life.
This was a fine performance full of infectious energy and musicality with a magnificent sense of string ensemble. In the Allegro vivace the piano sounded just like a mountain stream. The tone and texture of these period instruments is so warm, embracing and loving unlike the more strident, powerful modern sound spectrum. The instrumental dynamics within the ensemble was perfectly balanced and the pianssimo phrases extraordinarily sensitive. Mercurial changes of mood betray the Beethoven influence, Schubert's personal god. The Andante was a true ramble through the countryside by the composer, noticing trees, wildlife, insects and flowing streams, The Scherzo. Presto skipped along with 'joke-filled' energy.
This was followed by that oh so famous tune within the Tema con variazione. Andantino. Such a naive and innocent melody lifted to immortality by the rhythm. The atmospheric trills on the piano by brilliant Kenner immediately brought to mind trout migrating and leaping in streams. A few minor solecisms crept in at the edges, the string intonation was slightly wayward at times but all the variations were delightfully different in their chiaroscuro moods. The string players were all quite outstanding, expressing a range of emotions from blithe joy to humorous false conclusions. The energetic and bouncing Finale Allegro completed this delightful interpretation with such an affectingly different and seductive sound palette on period instruments. How desperately we needed to be lifted out of our present 'slough of despond'!
Opera in concert
Karen Gardeazabal The Countess (soprano)
Natalia Rubiś Bronia (soprano)
Rafał Bartmiński Casimir (tenor)
Mariusz Godlewski Valentine (baritone)
Jan Martiník Horatio (bass)
Nicola Proksch Miss Ewa (soprano)
Krystian Adam Dzidzi (tenor)
Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir
Fabio Biondi conductor
Violetta Bielecka choir director
The Countess - for the first time on period instruments
After the premiere, the Countess was quickly hailed as 'the drama of the torn skirt' (at one point a character who loves her, inadvertently steps on the hem and the ballgown, tearing its fragile expensive lace and incurring the rage of the Countess). This is how Józef Sikorski a press reviewer and founder of Ruch Muzyczny magazine described it critically. The gown is of course a symbol of the flawed wealthy aristocracy and their Frenchified devotion more to foreign luxuries than ensuring the future freedom of their 'virtual', partitioned country from rapacious foreign powers.
I had never heard any music from this opera or known much about it before this evening - being a foreigner! To my knowledge it has never been recorded in its entirety, certainly not on period instruments. Set in 18th-century Warsaw (within the Russian partition), in the reality of Pałac pod Blachą, where the Warsaw elite is getting ready for a ball at the Countess de Vauban. The opera is a humorous and ironic commentary on the behavior of the Polish high society at the fraught turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the era of the cruel partitions. A young aristocratic widow, the lady of the title, the Countess, is in love with the handsome officer, Kazimierz. However as is the way in these plots, his feelings are devoted to Bronia, a beautiful girl from another noble family. The action of the opera, such as it is, is filled with the adventures of our heroes. Naturally all ends happily where good-natured, faithful Bronia marries Kazimierz. The mannered Countess, fashionable and frivolous, is left abandoned. Patriotism, righteousness and sincere affection win over Frenchified, artifical cosmopolitanism.
Moniuszko and his librettist, Włodzimierz Wolski (who also authored Halka), describe several levels of the operatic story. In one dimension it is the story of two women falling in love and competing for the attentions of one man. The Countess, on the other hand, is a charming visual and musical presentation of life in high society, among the wealthy szlachta and also among the impoverished szlachta or nobility of the time. On another level, the opera presents the social views of the composer and librettist who clearly betray sympathy for the poorer social group. They do not conceal their patriotic views in the whole work, using fashion to deceive the Russian censors who are fooled into not seeing past the political implications of the glamorous waltzes, ballet music and patriotically impactful undanced polonaise. All this gentle subversion is depicted in the musical layer, which reflects the character of not only the various scenes, but also behavior of individual social groups and characters.For the plot I suggest you read the extensive synopsis on this download link:
I was so disappointed the opera was not costumed and staged. I found the presentation we were given rather static and unimaginative, even given the frightful restrictions of the pandemic. I much enjoyed the rather old-fashioned musical forms of the past. Much of the music had a distinct military flavour, an oblique criticism of high society in collusion with the partitioning power Russia, Warsaw being in the Russian section. I was attracted by the orchestral waltz music and ballet score which was full of charm and refinement. Here was the European sensibility before the horrors of the Great War were unleashed upon us. We have never recovered the loss of a generation of irreplaceable European civilized beings and their cultures.
One passage in the work refers to the tradition of the Italian bel canto. It is Eva's aria from Act I, revealing Moniuszko's preoccupation with coloratura of the Rossini Italian origin. The text of the aria itself was even written in Italian (Perchè belli labbri). This was combined with the numerous stylistic treatments used by Moniuszko. He gave the music the atmosphere of salon music of French classicism (albeit faintly critical) interwoven with rural associations of horn calls and hunting in bucolic country scenes.
THE MAGIC OF DANCE: WALTZES, POLKAS AND POLONAISES
(Courtesy Cyprus Symphony Orchestra)
Speaking of the most musical excerpts from this opera, one should pay particular attention to the Polonaise "Pan Chorąży" At the premiere it was immensely popular (for clearly patriotic reasons) and many repeats were demanded. Moniuszko used the last of the Six Polonaises for Piano, which he managed to publish in Vilnius at the Zawadzki publishing house, previously published by him privately. The sixth polonaise from the Zawadzki collection is featured in the Countess. In terms of the performance, this composition is intended for three cellos, a viola and a double bass.
Szlachta is a Polish term of unclear definition but in simplified terms may be considered as the nobility or noble estate. Joseph Conrad translated it as the ‘Equestrian Order’ in a letter to John Galsworthy in 1907. This culturally, economically and religiously diversified group were characterized by definite traditions, obligations, privileges and laws. Large by Western European standards, they made up some 10% of the population and identified themselves with the country itself. Some were fabulously wealthy, some comfortably off while others were landless and poor but all considered themselves as absolute equals. They enjoyed many privileges, were not obliged to pay taxes and were exempt from import and export duties. All were tremendously aware of their distinctive noble status.
Despite being expected to defend the country as their duty, many displayed lamentable self-serving behaviour when Poland was under external threat. The szlachta contributed in various ways to the partition and the destruction of the nation, reducing it to a mere state of mind for almost a hundred and fifty years. The szlachta and all noble titles were abolished under the Polish Republic and Constitution of 17 March, 1921. French remained the language of choice among the magnates and wealthy szlachta, spoken in their preferred cities of Paris, Vienna and St Petersburg.
All the voices, tenors, sopranos and basses were strong and characteristic in their parts. Fabio Biondi and the period orchestra and choir brought infectious, engaging and charming playing and singing to this pleasantly subversive confection.
An enjoyable undemanding operatic musical evening which clearly would have had concealed significance for contemporary Poles as well as clever, if gentle and comic, political subversiveness (a Moniuszko specialty) to deceive the censors at the time it was written.
21:00 August 18
Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Corina Belcea violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Axel Schacher (violin)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 18 No. 1
The quartet opened with the String Quartet in F major Op. 18 No.1 is in many ways the strongest of the set in inspiration and underwent a number of revisions. It is particularly instructive to compare these versions. The structure of the quartet is as inventive, as is the overall ensemble sound rather revolutionary, compared to Haydn or Mozart.
The Allegro was so untroubled and blithe. Immediately noticeable with the Belcea is their rich, mahogany timbre and their 'conversational' approach to the quartet of four speaking instruments.
In the second movement Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato Beethoven commented that he took Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as his inspiration. Surely no composer except perhaps Gluck had plumbed the personal emotional depths of love's possible tragedy to this extent before his conception of this affecting and deeply moving movement. The Belcea were extraordinary poignant in this movement, as one heard the breaths of sleep in a dream. Yet these feelings did not come from the temperamental injuries of experience but the innocent the apprehensions of a sensitive soul. Magically atmospheric. The Belcea sense of silence and its equal importance to sounding notes is always apparent in their phrasing.
The third movement Scherzo - Allegro molto is unexpectedly rather calm and even humorous in its light-hearted, diversionary, almost Viennese coffee house social conversational gestures brimming with gemütlichkeit.
They gave the final Allegro tremendous rhythmic impetus - such accomplished writing for such a young composer. The quartet created art as if spontaneously virtuosity, clear polyphony, immaculate articulation and ensemble playing. The contrasting cantabile elements were invested with great sentiment and charm.
I was immediately struck by the superb ensemble and philosophical tone and balance from the opening notes of the rather sombre Adagio ma non troppo that opens the work. The quartet have the perfect sound for the composer Beethoven. I felt a type of existential anguish. Later the movement became playful, meditative and joyful in turn - many changes of mood and tempo. Throughout there was total emotional, even physical commitment to the music of the performance or rather more accurately, the recreation of the work. What a lesson for other musicians who are too often merely going through 'reproductive' emotions! There was galvanic creative energy present here this evening.
This was the last of three string quartets commissioned in the 1820s by the Russian Prince Galitzin. According to Barry Cooper the first two movements did not pose any problem for Beethoven but for quite a length of time he was undecided about the actual structure and in terms of how many movements. The finale posed endless changes of direction.
The Belcea brought tremendous energy to the Presto (a theme packed with colour, humour and delight) and were often stepping off the ragged edge of control which was viscerally exciting. In the Andante con moto, ma non troppo rather more vital than the tempo indication. It struck me as being rather humorous in parts. The pizzicato gave it a delightful lightness at times. I found their detaché playing both elegant and charming.
The Belcea brought a rhythmic and melodic idiomatic understanding to the Alla danza tedesca Allegro assai (in the German style)performing as one organism in musical flight. I was amazed at the varied 'attack' these instrumentalists brought to their bowings - sometimes lyrically legato, superbly detaché, rough and almost coarse fortissimos when the context demanded it, rich smooth ensemble when that was expressively necessary.
A case in point was the divine Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo. The movement is at once dark, melancholy, intense yet profound in its emotional resonance. Human heartbeats over angelic melody. Even the deaf composer admitted to being moved to tears by this movement, one of the finest things Beethoven ever wrote. The Belcea did this full range of emotions justice, the pianissimos and phrasing, rather like a curious halting breath, seeming to me a presage of death. The composer died only months after finishing the composition.
Originally the Finale was a monumental fugue but after months of indecisiveness this idea was abandoned for the last complete piece Beethoven wrote, a Finale. Allegro The rather happy mood belies the health problems of Beethoven who was to die only months after finishing the composition.
From Illustrations by William Blake to the Divine Comedy
The Belcea brought the work to a brilliant conclusion before launching passionately into the mighty Grosse Fuge (actually published separately as Op. 133). This wrought-iron work, a true existential tragedy in Western musical art, was magnificently assembled by this quartet like a piece of soaring architecture. Hesitant breaths of suppressed and not suppressed cyclopian anger were expressed here.
Corina Belcea emerged once again as a unifying and galvanizing Force of Nature in this ensemble. Listening to them is an utterly unique spiritual experience that launches one far above earthly matters. The resistance and survival of the human spirit speaks through their tremendous crescendos in great labyrinths of sound. Sudden pianos create extraordinary, transcendent moments. The cello pulsates. One can only imagine the effect such a taxing complex musical design must have had upon contemporary audiences. For me the Belcea moved into the region of the transcendent in this monumental and formidable construction. One of the truly great performances of this quartet which will remain lodged with me for a long time, hopefully forever.
17:00 August 18 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Vadym Kholodenko piano
Alena Baeva violin
Fantasy for Violin and Piano in C major Op. 159 (D. 934)
From the first diaphanous tremolando on the piano in the Andante molto, it was clear that this would be a remarkable performance from Kholodenko of what at the time in Vienna (1827) was a much maligned reception of a formally misunderstood work that makes formidable musical demands on the instrumentalists. Written not long before Schubert's death, he was inspired by the remarkable playing of the Czech violinist Josef Slavík (1806–1833). Baeva from the outset produced a song that effortlessly floated above the piano like a swallow over a summer field. The work is a curiously untroubled piece considering Schubert's health and other deeply pessimistic work written at the time.
The Allegro blossomed like wild flowers with passionate contrasts. The balance of instruments was superb and one received the uncanny feeling as the work progressed, that these two virtuosi were a symbiotic, single organic entity that understood, and more importantly, could intuitively predict the deepest mutual musical understanding in terms of phrasing, dynamics and subtle nuance. The Andantino, the focus of this composition, consists of four variations on the theme of Schubert’s moving song ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ (D 741), to passionate words by Friedrich Rückert. This gives a rather different complexion to the motivation of this piece. Baeva raised and lowered our emotions like breezes in summer. The Variations were marvellously variegated, especially the pizzicato fantasies. The Fazioli instrument Kholodenko used particularly suited Schubert's sound palette.
I Greet You
[English Translation © Richard Wigmore]You who were torn from me and my kisses,
I greet you!
I kiss you!
You, whom only my yearning greeting can reach,
I greet you!
I kiss you!
[Translations by Richard Wigmore first published by Gollancz and reprinted in the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition]
The Allegro recreated the beginning atmosphere of the Fantasy, that extraordinary trembling of the nervous system and ardent yearning. The soaring tone of Baeva touches deep chords within the musical psyche. Kholodenko in the technically and poetically expressive fearsome piano part was unsurpassed in tone, touch and nuanced refinement of the true Schubertian. The final Presto is as often with Schubert, the triumphal rise of life over unrequited speculations. A cataclysm of hope and optimism. In Schubert what invariably emerges is a pattern of Romantic 'psychological symbolism'. So much is clear in his songs based on the associative power of literature and poetry. In this fantasy too the seductive, vulnerable lyricism of dreams and the imaginative flights of the artistic temperament are at momentarily interrupted by the reality of the world. The tenderness of a pastel drawing or watercolour suddenly contrasted with the concrete, forceful depiction of an oil painting.
Myths, Op. 30
I. The Fountain of Arethusa
The Fountain of Arethusa is a natural fountain on the island of Ortygia in the historical centre of the city of Syracuse in Sicily. According to Greek mythology, the fresh water fountain is the place where the nymph Arethusa, the patron figure of ancient Syracuse, returned to earth’s surface after escaping from her undersea home in Arcadia.
Arethusa by Benjamin West, British North American artist, 1802
On the piano Kholodenko miraculously created the impressionistic effect of water agitated by a zephyr. Above this floated the haunting and lyrically beautiful violin cantilena, one of the most eloquent melodies Szymanowski ever wrote and rendered divinely expressive by Baeva. She is a passionate performer who expressively depicted the nymph and her travails as did the Kholodenko provide a suitably trembling aqueous medium with superb control of colour, timbre and tone.
Echo and Narcissus – the English neoclassicist painter John William Waterhouse, 1903
Narcissus stares at his reflection, while his rejected suitor, Echo, looks on. Narcissus, who was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, was told he would to live to an old age if he never looked at himself. He had gained many female admirers and possibly male, entranced by his beauty, but he rejected them all. One of them, Echo, was so upset by his rejection that she withdrew from the world to waste away. All that was left of her was a whisper. It was heard by the goddess Nemesis, who, in response, made Narcissus fall in love with his own reflection, at which he stared until he died. Could Szymanowski be conceiving of some form of autoeroticism here? A narcissus flowered in his absence. The story of Echo and Narcissus is best known from book three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. [History Today]
The violin, in a dreamy cantilena on the violin which Baeva seemed to transform into a viola, perhaps representing Echo, seemed to me to be yearning for the unattainable love of Narcissus. A wistful yearning for unattainable perfection seemed to be transmuted into a romantic involvement with himself depicted on the violin with the piano creating the water of the pool. Then disaster is upon him as he gazes at his own reflection after being forbidden to do so.
III. Dryads and Pan
Pan and Syrinx (1722-1724) – Jean François de Troy
The god Pan lasciviously chases the wood nymphs. The refinement and seductiveness of the Greek God, much of the Dionysian element also, was perfectly captured in the rich timbre and textures utilized by Baeva. Hypnotic writing by Szymanowski imitates Pan’s flute with harmonics. Pan as a mercurial and whimsical creature emerges in this work. Short ‘flying phrases’ depict him. This inspired duo used a significant variation in dynamics, colour, texture and penetration of sound. Baeva extracted unique and extraordinary sounds from her violin. She used them most expressively – playing with and without the mute, two-note trills, tremolos, glissandi, artificial and natural harmonics, left hand pizzicati and quarter tones. Music of the most subtle sensuality and mischievous patterns. Unearthly and mercurial moods appropriate to Gods ancient myths were created. I was visually reminded of a ramble through one of the seminal picaresque landscape gardens in England, possibly my favourite artistic stimulus known as Rousham designed by William Kent, in particular the feature known as Venus Vale.
Violin sonata in A major Op. 47
Finally one of my favourite Beethoven chamber works, the Sonata for piano and violin Op. 47 known a the 'Kreutzer'. Beethoven originally dedicated it to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer (who never performed it) but withdrew this in favour of the English violinist George Bridgetower who premiered it with Beethoven in Vienna in 1803.
As I am an author, the Leo Tolstoy novella The Kreutzer Sonata inescapably creeps in at the edges of my mind whenever I hear the work. In the final of many versions of the story, Tolstoy presents a narrator who relates a conversation heard on a train concerning the infidelity of a man's wife and the nature of marriage, divorce and love. An attraction developed between his wife who plays the piano and a violinist. Tolstoy describes how they play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata together, which music 'unites' the narrator's wife with the violinist and precipitates such tumultuous emotions of rage and jealousy that the narrator eventually kills her with a dagger. Tolstoy questions the institution of marriage and celebrates chastity and sexual abstinence. He observed tellingly: ‘It [Music] transports me into a state that is not my natural one. Under the influence of music, it seems that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I do what I cannot do.’
The Adagio sostenuto - Presto opened in a mysterious and haunting manner, a presage of what was to come in the communication of passion. There were great dynamic contrasts here and tremendous theatrical drama as if engaged in erotic 'conversation' with minimal restraint. I felt at times this abandonment rather overstepped the invisible line of an acceptable view of Beethoven as a 'Romantic'.
The Andante con variazione expressed the emotions of a hearkening for the completion of the love Beethoven sought all his life but failed to achieve. Blithe untroubled love in addition to hesitant breaths and nervousness. One variation expressed dark and hopeless reflections, another carefree, blithe and nonchalant. Such alluring and intimate musical conversations took place between Baeva and Kholodenko, two souls in harmony of thought and intention. He played with fine articulation, detaché and restrained tonally, dynamically and through refined touch. After our emotional journey, the movement concluded with the greatest tenderness and grace.
The Finale. Presto seemed as a flight pursued by the demons of unbridled passion. There was irresistible rhythmic impetus and inspired phrasing with extensive contrasts of colour and timbre. The drama built to a level of almost Italianate operatic passion with lightening and thunderstorms. I did begin to wonder if this boarded on the excessive for the Beethoven style and sound with its astonishing coda of dynamic variation and timbre.
A remarkable and moving concert that presented each composer within an completely different sound universe of extraordinary variety and creativeness.
Highly enthusiastic standing ovation
Kreutzer Sonata (1901) - René François Xavier Prinet
21:00 August 19 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Corina Belcea violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Axel Schacher (violin)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)
String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18 No. 4
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 74
String Quartet in F major, Op. 59 No. 1
In the String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4 we perceive Beethoven in possession of his full powers of melodic invention. He used this key for many forceful and potent works. Energetic but not necessarily too intensely serious. The critic Robert Simpson wrote of it so colorfully and appropriately 'the sense of movement is as perfect as a cat's.'
When the Belcea begin one is immediately struck by the richness of the sound of the ensemble and their deep musical engagement with and commitment to each other. In the opening Allegro ma non tanto one is aware of Beethoven's sense of conviction and melodic expository self-confidence of the highest order, rather than any of his later tragic or philosophical preoccupations. Corina Belcea playing 1st violin is absolutely uplifting in this movement. There is such charm here and intelligent 'conversation' between instruments.
In the second movement Scherzo: Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto the fugato opening is a delight of civilized Viennese gemütlichkeit which owes a debt to Haydn surely in its playful healthy demeanor, a smile of complicit private refinement across a chattering salon. The Belcea intonation was perfection here giving one a feeling of the fairy lightness of music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. Refined, elegant and full of joyful life.
The third movement Menuetto: Allegretto again calls up pictures in my mind of dancing figures both alluring and beguiling in splendid military uniforms and ball gowns.
The final Allegro is in the cavalier Hungarian style that attracted Haydn. So stylish, full of élan and panache is the increase in tempo as the movement progresses, Hussar officers enjoying life to the full. Belcea brought infective driving rhythm to this movement till a conclusion verging on the energetic military dancing madness of some wild tarantella although that is not what it was of course.
I felt the Belcea enjoyed their instrumental and musical interaction a great deal and communicated the pleasures of conversational light Viennese 'banter'. Surely this is the nature of many of the movements within the ebullient compositions of a carefree young man of emerging genius before the horrors of deafness and depression approached his soul.Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram 1809 Horace Vernet (1789-1863)
July 1809 saw Napoleon take over Vienna in the victorious Battle of Wagram against the rather equally matched Austrian forces. The city was bombarded with hundreds of canon in a siege and surrendered. The Austrian nobles who had pledged support for Beethoven were forced to flee. Beethoven spent the siege at the house of his brother, Kasper Karl, with pillows over his ears, attempting to protect his already failing hearing. As I live in Poland it may be lightly diverting to mention that soon after establishing himself at Schönbrunn, Napoleon had written to his Polish mistress Maria Walewska inviting her to join him. She was secreted at nearby Mödling and taken to him by his valet under cover of night (he still being still married to Josephine) .
Beethoven composed three major works during this period, all in the key of E-flat major. The 'Emperor' piano concerto finished before the French occupation. This great work was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, one of Beethoven's most financially generous patrons. The composer's musical laments following the flight of the Archduke are deeply expressed in the programmatic 'Les Adieux' piano sonata Op. 81a, each movement expressing his sorrow at Rudolph’s departure, absence, and the joy felt upon his return.
The third work in the great series was the String Quartet in E-flat major Op.74, dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, another noble patron. The opening of the first movement Poco Adagio. Allegro is so reflective and melancholic, the Belcea filling it with sighs and yearning. It then came alive with the main portion of the opening movement and the pizzicato expressive elements. They gave it the confidence of life and even degrees of humour. The coda is marked by accompaniment pizzicato figures that suggested the title 'Harp' to Beethoven's publisher. Corina Belcea revealed great virtuosity and passion in this movement.
The tender Adagio, with an elegant variation of the main rondo theme, was suggestive as a precursor of the late quartet Adagio from Op.132 heard the evening before. The theme here is heartrending. I saw myself wandering in summer alpine pastures softy taken over by melancholic reflections of past loves achieved and lost. The Belcea gave it pastel nuances passing thoughts from one to another so symbiotically and organically. The extraordinary pianissimo ending was full of delicate sensibility.
The final powerful Presto. Più presto quasi prestissimo contained the wondrous energy of the heroic Fifth Symphony, including the same obsessively thermodynamic four-note rhythmic figure. Corina Belcea appeared a force of nature in this movement, but there were overwhelmingly passionate cello entries from Antoine Lederlin. I was reminded of a high mountain torrent cascading over boulders by the elemental force embedded within the theme. Allegretto con variazioni had a lyrical genial and gentle theme with six contrasting variations, alternating the physical vigor of the dance contrasted with lyrical repose in Nature. The substantial coda concluded the work in a brilliant close by the Belcea. This great quartet was premiered at the home of Prince Lobkowitz in autumn 1809, after the French had departed and the Austrian nobility returned.
Beethoven began writing the three string quartets Op. 59 in 1806. He was already famous as the greatest composer of the day with the many masterpieces of his 'middle period' already composed - the Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4, the 'Waldstein' and 'Appassionata' piano sonatas, his opera Fidelio, as well as the 'Eroica' and Fourth Symphonies. He was now firmly established as the leading composer of his time, but was always drawn to the 'absolute music' of the string quartet as the vehicle of his most intimate and innermost spiritual and physical concerns.
This form was originally rather diversions and elegant entertainment before Haydn and Mozart transformed its nature and deepened its musical resonance. An enthusiastic patron was the Russian ambassador to Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky, who commissioned the three Opus 59 Quartets dedicated to him. He also maintained a virtuosic band of string players that allowed Beethoven to experiment and forge new ground emotionally and explore revolutionary ideas. He wrote to his publisher: "I am thinking of devoting myself almost entirely to this type of composition." Many might argue the string quartet as the genre that encapsulates the genius of Beethoven more profoundly than any other.
The String Quartet F-major Op. 59 No.1 is the most extensive. The Belcea cellist Antoine Lederlin opened the Allegro first movement with a blithe sunlit theme, then taken over by Corina Belcea on first violin, suspended over an oscillating accompaniment from the middle voices that becomes increasingly passionate. Each player is given solo passages but the kaleidoscopic alteration of color and mercurial moods leave the listener as disorientated as a ill-placed billiard ball.
The second movement Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando with the Belcea reminded me of musical 'banter' in its extensive rhythm and melodic charm. This is sheer musical inventiveness of the highest order. Musical interchanges were thrown between the players one to another like so many shuttlecocks.
I found the Adagio molto e mesto (very slow and melancholic) pregnant with a sense of grief and the loss of life or love. There was a most affecting intimate communication between the violin and cello that recurred from time to time. Corina Belcea and Antoine Lederlin beautifully understood the musical intimacy of this connection. The melody on the violin is divine, the soul being laid before us on a cloth of heaven. Private devastation is expressed with, what has been conceived of by some commentators, the power of Shakespearean grandeur.
A type of cadenza leads directly into the fourth movement Thème russe. Allegro. There was a request to Beethoven from Count Razumovsky that a Russian theme be included in each of these 'Razumovsky' Quartets. One gazes across the Russian steppe to villages and villagers singing a Russian folk song. The Belecea gave this the fertile happiness in their variation in dynamics and the nuance it deserves rising resplendent from Beethoven's vivid musical imagination. The forte as the music rushes to its conclusion was rich and powerful. What an ensemble this is with such triumph at the close!
21:00 August 16 Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Corina Belcea violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Axel Schacher (violin)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)
String Quartet in G major Op. 18 No. 2
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132
Belcea Quartet, a beautifully integrated ensemble, opened with the String
Quartet in G major Op. 18 No. 2 (1798-1800) considered an 'early'
work. This is actually slightly misleading as the still young composer was
thirty and had already distinguished himself as a composer of outstanding
chamber works. The ebullient key of G major was favoured by Beethoven for
conversational wit (especially in the lively, humorous and bucolic Scherzo).
This was coupled with a degree of rather untroubled melancholy emotion in
the Adagio cantabile. The final Allegro molto, quasi
presto is tremendously high-spirited with amusing multiple changes of
The Belcea gave a charming, civilized, satisfying, exuberant performance with great understanding of the historical context. Playfulness and irony were in abundance. There was an appropriate civilized conversational, even superficial 'banter', between members of the quartet, communication of the intimate friend kind, 'fun' and enjoyment of this humorous music if you will. This was effectively coupled with those telling gestures contained in the social affectations of the cultural milieu that Beethoven inhabited at the time.
The pandemic seemed to make this next quartet utterly relevant. String Quartet in A minor Op. 132 Quartet was composed in the early part of 1825. Beethoven had begun writing the work but the process was interrupted by a serious illness. Dr. Anton Braunhofer treated his inflammation of the intestines by banning wine, spirits, coffee, spices and so on. He recommended a recuperation period outside Vienna in the fresh air and healthy environment of the countryside. By May Beethoven had retired to the Viennese suburb of Baden and it was here the A minor Quartet was mainly written.
This illness and recovery directly impinge on the inspiration of the quartet.
It is in five movements:
- Assai sostenuto – Allegro
- Allegro ma non tanto
- Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Andante
- Alla marcia, assai vivace
- Allegro appassionato
Elohim creating Adam by William Blake
The expressive heart of the quartet is the magnificent outpouring of faith in the third movement Molto adagio - Andante movement in the Lydian mode, the Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanks). This was written as a gesture of thanksgiving for his recovery from this illness, a profound expression of his spiritual resistance or sublimation of his destiny of suffering - psychological, personal and concerning his blighted health. This sublime masterpiece of a movement, an enormous prayer of thanksgiving, is an otherworldly hymnal theme that achieves a type of joyful stillness written in an ancient church mode. Surely this immense statement is one of the greatest expressions of spiritual gratitude to the Almighty in Western musical art. The Belcea Quartet expressed this as a slow awakening of winter. The music seemed to come from a yearning for life, with the melancholy of the confessional. Maintaining the long melodic line here was masterly by the Belcea. One felt Beethoven was spinning Ariadne's thread in this spiritual meditation, thanksgiving for life but so tenuously held. The breath of the heart and soul. Deep seriousness with an incorporeal, immanent quality which was deeply moving and hypnotically held the audience spellbound in pregnant silence at the conclusion.
The remaining various movements orbit around this sun. The rough hewn opening movement Assai sostenuto – Allegro seems to betray a degree of attenuated anger (savage interruptions between cello and viola) against the burdens of fate. Melancholy and lyricism were present yet civilized 'conversation' between instruments. The Belcea Quartet have an extraordinary disciplined yet rich, matched ensemble sound. The second movement is a minuet and trio as if preparing us to leave this material rural world for the profound Heiliger Dankgesang.
This third movement hymn with the Belcea lead rather incongruously and almost shockingly into the brief Alla marcia, assai vivace which appears as if Beethoven wants to remind us of the secular triviality of the world around us - yet there was irony here rather than humour. The final Allegro appassionato was a robust, muscular assertion of positive human life, a strong, unequivocal statement of faith and optimism thrown in the face of the unavoidable divine decree of death. The tremendous internal energy and intensely integrated ensemble style of the Belcea Quartet unambiguously expressed this assertive promulgation of the triumph of life itself, even if temporary, performed with unarguable passion, authority and style.
A truly magnificent performance and one of the great musical experiences of my life. A true privileged entry into a rarefied realm, scarcely here on earth.
17:00 August 16, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Dmitry Shishkin piano
Dimitry Shishkin was awarded 5th prize in the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition 1-23 October 2015. I wrote absolutely lyrically about his first stage but became increasingly disenchanted as the competition progressed. I found re-reading my competition review notes rather interesting. It is always instructive to look back at the written record of his performance, particularly in light of his recent magnificent 2nd prize in the 16th International Pyotr Tchaikovsky Competition 2019. In such an ephemeral art as musical performance, it is always constructive to glance back at past performance impressions when present victories emerge. Possibly the unique value of my modest efforts is at least the preservation of an historical record.
Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. In the structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented an entirely new musical material. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination. I did not feel this operatic nature in his interpretation.
Ballade in G minor Op. 23
He poses a finely honed tone and articulation but for me his technique is too exclusively 'pianistic' to be deeply satisfying. I felt this to be a virtuosic rather than an expressive narrative nature, a quality that persisted during the Chopin section of his recital.
Ballade in F major Op. 38
I am always looking in the Ballades for an exploratory excursion through the landscape of the emotions. I kept asking myself 'What is this pianist trying to say about the work?' His technique is so dramatic, burnished and impressive I expected more of expressive depth.
Ballade in A flat major Op. 47
Sometimes I have the unsettling feeling that the ballades are templates with Shishkin on which he can work technically in brilliant style, observing all the indications but they fail to be organically affecting from within. Much expression seemed to 'learned' rather than spontaneous. At his level there must be more, surely an individual 'voice' should emerge...there was so little dynamic variation, telling nuance and rubato. His touch is refined and polished but the repeated phrases were almost identical.
Ballade in F minor Op. 52
The opening of this Chopin masterpiece seemed to presage little of the great 'opera of life' that is to follow. He did not seem sufficiently emotionally involved in the music that was unfolding - pianistically yes, to a high degree but with his very heart, soul and mind? Repeated phrases were executed in exactly the same manner. I find this 'objectivity' in Chopin surprising with such a formidable pianistic and musical talent.
Forgotten Melodies – Canzona serenata, Op. 38 No. 6
Forgotten Melodies – Danza col canto, Op. 40 No. 1
Forgotten Melodies – Danza sinfonica, Op. 40 No. 2
I felt Shishkin far more 'At Home' here with a far deeper understanding of this composer. There were many beautifully nuanced and cantabile melodic lines with much moving poetry and sensitive dynamic variation. Much refinement and charm was in evidence and he seemed far more involved emotionally in this fabric of this music.
Sonata No. 7 in B flat major Op. 83
The Prokofiev 'War Sonata', the Sonata No.7 in B-flat major Op. 83 (1939-42) suited his percussive, passionately physical, rather emotionally detached style of dynamically penetrating execution. The percussive anger of the Allegro inquieto was powerfully expressed but I felt I needed more poetry in the lyrical contrast of the emotional and romantic Andante caloroso. That plaintive repeated note that for me expresses all the intense loneliness and isolation of the human soul in the firmament confronted by the cruelty of war. The Precipitato final movement was cumulatively powerful, exciting, physically engaging at an up tempo forte which lead to an overwhelming resolution and harmonic climacteric. An impressive, penetrating, performance. The audience adored it and gave him a standing ovation!
His first encore was a Tale by Medtner, No.6 in G major Op.51.
The second encore was a fabulous, brilliant rendition of Moszkowski's Etincelles Op.36 No.6 Allegro scherzando (a favourite encore by Horowitz if I remember correctly)
21:00 August 15, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
Sonata No. 26 in E flat major (‘Les Adieux’), Op. 81a
In the Adagio – Allegro (Lebewohl) Goerner dealt with the melancholic historical situation, dwelling on the lamenting three note melody, a horn call symbolizing in poetry the pain of distance, solitariness and memory. Affectingly achieved. The Allegro (begun without pause) was expressed with much virtuosity and élan. His tone and touch were refined but I would have preferred a more restrained approach to capture more the 'classical' and rather 'dry' ambiance of the keyboard sound of the period. The coda gave one a strong sense of separation and departure. His variations in dynamic indicated Beethoven as a composer of burgeoning Romanticism.
I felt the Andante espressivo (Abwesenheit) was deeply poetic and yearning, cultivated with a deep sense of loss. During the delicately expressed nuances and varied articulation, one did feel the heart aching after the parting with flashes of resentment and anger at such an unfolding of destiny. The Vivacissimamente (Das Wiedersehn) began with a sudden explosion of the joy of return reflected in the high degree of brilliant virtuosity and articulation. Tremendous Beethovenian exuberant energy in gestures of simple happiness without the expression of complex sentiments. A considered performance with a high degree of modern pianistic polish. I would like to have more of an expressive feeling of that intangible and irascible and moody Beethovenian character.
‘Eroica’ Variations in E flat major, Op. 35
This was again a convincingly virtuoso and pianistic interpretation with variety in the interpretations. The pianistic technical innovations in this pianoforte work make it quite revolutionary and uniquely demanding for the pianist, perhaps the reason it is not often performed in concert despite its iconic status.
Goerner gave us an interpretation that I found rather light, cavalier and lyrical rather than seriously reflective and 'heroic'. Each variation had its own identity and life in colour and sound which I felt was well delineated with tone, articulation and transparency. The magnificent, energetic Fugue (tremendously difficult) which crowns the work was too lightweight pianistically and expressively for me. I felt it not philosophical and polyphonically powerful in stature and constructed in stone.
However for me it was the actual overwhelming nature of this music that preoccupied my mind and heart - surely all one can ask of a pianist as the conduit of the composer's musical intentions. Of course, as is far too often the case with me, and may I add, desperately unfair, I had brain echoes of a monumental and profound performance of the work given in 1980 in the Royal Festival Hall in London by Emil Gilels. One of my greatest musical experiences.
Ballade in A flat major Op. 47
This was a fine expressive performance of the Chopin Ballade with great 'narrative' musical force. This intimate understanding and detail within the score comes from years of familiarity and maturity both on modern and period instruments. Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. In the structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented an entirely new musical material which Goerner exploited to the full with lyrical singing cantabile passage and masculine forcefulness. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination. Certainly I felt this operatic nature in his interpretation. The work contains some of the most magical passages in Chopin, some of the greatest moments of passionate fervour culminating in other periods of shattering climatic tension. No criticism possible, just nothing to say.
Valse oubliée No. 2 (S. 215)
What a sonic delight of the most rarefied kind this was! Goerner has a magnificent technique and performs Liszt with tremendous ease and authority. Here I had mental images of a forest pool at night with will-o'-the-wisps dancing over the surface in a manner reminiscent of the Feux Follets Transcendental Étude. Their gossamer gambols attract mythological human characters from Ovid's Metmorphoses to emerge from the darkness foliage and join in this playful forgotten waltz, skipping in the magic dust scattered on the banks until they all fad into the mysterious gloom and darkness - reality descends once again. Superbly evocative and impressionistic with lightness, elegance, articulation and grace in this remarkable interpretation.
Spanish Rhapsody (S. 254)
A Spanish jota
Liszt told Lina Ramann that he had written the piece in recollection of his Spanish tour whilst in Rome in about 1863. The work was published in 1867—subtitled Folies d’Espagne et Jota aragonesa. Although Goerner brought rhapsodic virtuosity to the work, I felt he could heed the conception of the work by the great Liszt authority, scholar and pianist Leslie Howard, who says it 'needs a certain elegant detachment in performance. Its nature is rather staid and noble—even the coda is marked ‘non troppo allegro’—and the opening flourishes, however dramatic, recall the sound-world of the recently-composed Légende: St François d’Assise—La prédication aux oiseaux.'
Nevertheless it was a spectacularly dramatic and highly exciting performance with a triumphal conclusion. I left the hall greatly in need of a paella and a glass or two of old fashioned Rioja - but where, my friends, during a pandemic?
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